"Her breast is fit for pearls,": A Critical Edition of Emily Dickinson's Poem/Letter

Guide to This Site

This site is a work in progress. It provides my edition of Emily Dickinson's "Her breast is fit for pearls,". Currently, I present two versions of this poem, one as it appears in a letter, another as it appears in Fascicle 5. Following these, I provide an explanation about my editorial rationale, a brief contextual history of the versions of this poem, a selected bibliography, an invitation for readers' responses, and finally, a set of electronic links for supplementary information that you may find useful.

-Stephanie Burley

Letter Version

1   Her breast is fit for pearls,
     But I was not a "Diver" -
     Her brow is fit for thrones
     But I have not a crest.
5   Her heart is fit for home- [rest crossed out]
     I - a Sparrow - build there
     Sweet of twigs and twine
     My perennial nest.


Fascicle Version

1   Her breast is fit pearls,
     But I was not a "Diver" -
     Her brow is fit for thrones
     But I had not a crest.
5   Her heart is fit for rest/- +home-
     I - a Sparrow - build there
     Sweet of twigs and twine
     My perennial nest.


About This Edition

The main aim of this edition of "Her breast is fit for pearls," is to provide as accurate a transcription of the manuscripts as possible in the format of electronically standardized type, a transcription that attempts to leave open as many interpretive avenues as possible for the reader. Of course, the following transcriptions are still only representations of Dickinson's manuscripts. Her penmanship, presentation of words on the page, and the original contexts of her writing are, on some level, sacrificed for the sake of accessibility in a format such as this. My challenge here is to describe these (con)textual elements to the best of my ability, keeping in mind, and in fact foregrounding, the levels of mediation that my edition represents. Therefore, I present this edition as an invitation for readers to further investigate online reproductions of Dickinson's manuscripts, and/or The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson (Franklin, 1981). While I believe that editorial projects such as this are important, I in no way want to suggest that they are a substitute for getting as close to Dickinson's actual written words as time and resources will allow each individual reader.

Toward a Contextual History of "Her breast is fit for pearls,"

This particular poem calls for a careful contextualization, especially since the standard narrative of its transmission has recently been called into question. According to Samuel Johnson's variorum (1955) two versions of "Her breast is fit for pearls," were written about 1859. One version was sent as a letter, and another appears in Fascicle 5. The epistolary version was first printed in Mabel Loomis Todd's 1894 edition of The Letters Of Emily Dickinson, in a chapter titled "To Mr. & Mrs. Bowles." This same version also appears in Bianchi's The Life And Letters Of Emily Dickinson (1924). Todd was apparently the first to claim that this poem was addressed to Samuel Bowles, and subsequent editors did not question this assumption. However, recently Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith (forthcoming) have contested this claim by detecting the erased name "Sue" on the verso of the epistolary version. In light of this new evidence, it seems plausible that the epistolary version of this poem was actually addressed to Dickinson's close friend, literary collaborator, and sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson. The draft quality of the epistolary version, with "rest" crossed out, seems consistent with the narrative of Susan Dickinson as Emily Dickinson's primary literary confidante, a theory posited by Hart and Smith (forthcoming). While the story behind the intended destination of this poem/letter remains occluded by the battles over the possession of Dickinson's manuscripts following her death (see Smith, 1989), the critics do agree that this poem was presented as a letter to someone, and this epistolary context may add to the reader's understanding and interpretation of the poem. Therefore, I have chosen to include my transcriptions of both the letter and the fascicle versions in this edition.

Selected Bibliography

In the following sources, you can find other editors' interpretations of this poem. While my editorial choices differs from theirs, I would like to acknowledge my debt to their work. They furnish many points of departure for the investigation of Dickinson's writings. I have also included the citations for recent books by Martha Nell Smith and Ellen Louise Hart, work that is currently calling into question the standard narrative of the transmission of "Her breast is fit for pearls,".

Bianchi, Martha Dickinson. The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1924.

Franklin, R.W. ed. The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1981.

Hart, Ellen Louise and Martha Nell Smith, eds. A Book of Susan and Emily Dickinson. Ashfield, MA: Paris Press, forthcoming (1998).

Johnson, Thomas H. ed. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1961.

Johnson, Thomas H. ed. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1955.

Todd, Mabel Loomis, ed. Letters of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1894.

Smith, Martha Nell. Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson. Austin: University of Texas Press,1992.

Invitation For Reader Correspondence

While my current interpretation of "Her breast is fit for pearls," has the privileged position in this format, I invite readers to unsettle this position by corresponding with me about the work I have done. I do not intend to set myself up as an expert fending off challenges, but rather, to cast myself as one member of a community of Emily Dickinson scholars interested in maintaining on-going discussions of Dickinson's works. To respond to this edition, either click on "Reader Correspondence" in the "Additional Information" section below, or address correspondence to Stephanie Burley, Department of English, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742.

Additional Information

* Click here for more about online reproduction of the letter manuscript of Dickinson's "Her breast is fit for pearls," (Johnson's # 84, A651).

* Click here for more about Susan Dickinson and Emily Dickinson's literary collaboration.

* Click here to leave a message in the Reader Correspondence Mailbox.