“If I can stop one heart from breaking”

If I can stop one heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain
If I can ease one Life the Aching
Or cool one Pain

Or help one fainting Robin
Unto his Nest again,
I shall not live in Vain.

Poem #919, “If I can stop one heart from breaking,” is thought to have been written about 1864 and was published in 1929 in Further Poems of Emily Dickinson by Little, Brown and Company of Boston.

This poem consists of two stanzas, a rhyming quatrain and a tercet with a more loosely structured rhyme scheme. It begins with ‘If I can stop one Heart from breaking / I shall not live in vain’ (433). Dickinson is expressing a desire to stop someone from having her heart broken. A broken heart can come from a relationship, a death, or any of the typical hardships that people go through in life. She is saying that if she is able to stop one person from experiencing this kind of pain, then her life will not have been lived in vain (without success or result). She then continues with “If I can ease one Life the Aching / Or cool one Pain.” In these two lines she reiterates her first point, which is that she wants to help relieve the ache and pain in at least one person’s life. The use of the word “cool” makes one think that the pain is hot, perhaps red such as anger. To cool the pain she would be distinguishing the fiery anger in this person’s breaking heart. Also, Dickinson capitalized both “aching” and “pain” in these two lines, showing that these are important themes in the poem. The next stanza begins with “Or help one fainting Robin / Unto his Nest again.” This opening could be looked at as helping a person who has lost control of their life and needs to be set straight again. The robin in this instance is someone who is struggling with heartbreak, perhaps bad enough to want to give up and “faint,” but Dickinson desires to put this person back on the right track, into their “nest.” The poem ends by coming full circle with a repeat of the line “I shall not live in vain.” Dickinson seems to suggest that someone’s life is worth more if they are concerned with helping others. She considers her life a success if she is able to help at least one person to be happier, to be without pain or heartbreak.

While it would be hard to prove, readers have speculated that this poem about the desire to stop a heart from breaking is about a love interest. It is possible to read the poem alongside Dickinson’s “master letters” in 1858 and 1861 that “reveal passionate yet changing feelings toward the recipient” (Emily Dickinson Museum).

—Jamie Clark

Bibliography and Further Reading “Emily Dickinson’s Love Life.” Emily Dickinson Museum: The Homestead and the Evergreens. Web. 11 Nov. 2013; Thomas H Johnson,. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. New York: Back Bay Books / Little, Brown and Company, 1961. Print.

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5 thoughts on ““If I can stop one heart from breaking”

  1. Peg

    I’M SEARCHING FOR A HARDBACK DICKINSON COLLECTION THAT INCLUDES THIS POEM BUT IS LESS INTIMIDATING THAT THE COMPLETE WORKS. ANY SUGGESTIONS?

    Reply
    1. mlongfarfield Post author

      The selected poems would be your best bet: Final Harvest : Emily Dickinson’s Poems. Edited by Thomas H. Johnson. 352 pages. New York : Little Brown & Co, 1997.

      Reply
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