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 in pain
Or help one fainting Robin
Unto his Nest again,
I shall not live in Vain.
“If I can stop one heart from breaking” (#119) was written about 1864 and published in 1929 in Further Poems of Emily Dickinson published by Little, Brown and Company of Boston. Dickinson was known to seclude herself in her bedroom while writing her poetry, most of which has themes of mortality, although this poem in particular has a more uplifting message to provide, that of selflessness. While it would be hard to prove, it is possible that this poem which addresses the desire to stop a heart from breaking is about a love interest. It is possible that it is involved with Dickinson’s ‘master letters’ between 1858 and 1861 that ‘reveal passionate yet changing feelings toward the recipient’ (Emily Dickinson Museum).
This poem consists of two stanzas and has a 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 their 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 capitalizes 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’ which 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 be trying to express 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.
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).