This is given through vague ideas and interpretive concepts, however, that showcase almost desperation in that Dickinson is willing to offer this “help” in various ways.
Again, this could seem like a wonderful trait, but as she repeats her true rationale—that providing this “help” will keep her life from being “in vain”—the reader can note that her primary reasoning for offering these moments of assistance is to better her own life. This turns the theme of ‘If I can stop one heart from breaking’ into a reflection of how desperately a person could want to impact the world—so much that it can be the driving force of their existence.
If I can stop one heart from breaking Emily DickinsonIf 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 robinUnto his nest again,I shall not live in vain.
If I can stop one heart from breaking Analysis
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
This proclamation, given in such a simple manner in these two lines, is the core theme of the poem, by existing in a way that “can stop one heart from breaking,” the narrator “shall not live in vain.” The easy interpretation of this idea is that so long as the ability exists to “help” another person, life can be something that is worth experiencing. However, it is worth noting that Dickinson has not said that life would not be “in vain” so long as she could “help” another for a first concept. Rather, she has stated the specific action of being able to “stop one heart from breaking.”
This negates the prospect of her primary goal being general “help” as there are plenty of avenues that general “help” could take. Instead, she is primarily focused on preventing emotional hurt for another that feels like “breaking.” Even though other concepts are explored later in ‘If I can stop one heart from breaking,’ this is the initial situation that she addresses, which makes it feel as though it comes with a vast amount of priority.
Worth noting as well is that Dickinson does not say which “heart” she wants to keep “from breaking.” Essentially, there is no one person that she wishes to “help”—not even herself. She only wishes to assist a general “one.” There are no limits to this concept—not so much as a statement of species.
Furthermore, the use of “shall” in Line 2 is much more dramatic, like a Shakespearean tragedy, than “will” would have been, and it is much more concrete than the conditional, “would.” There is little room to doubt the proclamation with such a strong, dramatic choice, and that single word in these two lines speaks to the strength of Dickinson’s resolve on the matter. Basically, she truly believes that assisting another in this way leads to a life worth “liv[ing].”
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.
The notion that species are not addressed in regard to who Dickinson is willing to assist is explored specifically in Lines 5 and 6 when she notes that if she could “help one fainting robin [u]nto his nest again, [she] shall not live in vain.” This solidifies the theory that she does not care who or what she assists, only that this assistance will potentially make her life worth experiencing.
An interesting thing about this, however, is that she uses the word, “Unto,” instead of what might be the more typical, “into.” As “[u]nto” can have a connotation of meaning “until,” it does not necessarily fit with the notion of assisting a “robin” to “his nest.” The “robin,” after all, would go “in” its “nest,” which would seemingly call for the word, “into.” What this could mean is that Dickinson is subtly letting the reader know that she does not mean a literal “robin” or “nest” since the wording is just shy of what would be proper to explain that scenario.
If such is the case, she is likely describing her fellow man in this way, like a mother bird catering to her offspring. There is tenderness and care in that scenario, something that expresses fondness and a lack of ability on the part of the children. By translation, then, the reader can infer that Dickinson would offer this assistance with the same tenderness toward those who truly need it, like a baby bird would need an older one.
The question, at this point, becomes why Dickinson would bring up a “robin” to explain humanity in this way, given that a concept of humanity could have achieved the same goal. The answer could reside in the theory that by bringing up a “robin” that is beyond expectations of humanity—an animal that can soar and exist above our natural reach—Dickinson is letting the reader know that she is thinking on a grander scale than just common concepts where this kind of “help” could come into play. She is willing, by this estimation, to think outside of the box and to “help” in ways that are varied and deep.
This is noted, as well, in the vague ideas that she addresses for how she could assist another, like “eas[ing]… aching” or “cool[ing]… pain.” There are so many ideas that could exist under these umbrellas—physical hurt and all of its possibilities, as well as mental and emotional “pain”—and few to no specifics, are given outside of the earlier mentioned notion of a “heart” that “break[s].” This again reinforces how strongly Dickinson feels about mending that kind of “break” since it is the clearest human problem she notes to “help,” and it also sets up the reader to be able to soar into higher logic with the “robin” concept. There are few boundaries in “eas[ing]… aching” and “cool[ing]… pain,” so without those boundaries, the reader is ready to head into the sky with the “robin” to note that any interpretation of the “help” is possible.
She ends ‘If I can stop one heart from breaking’ with the same declaration that she “shall not live in vain,” which cements the theory that “help[ing]” others can create a life that is worthwhile. It also, however, holds a hint of selfishness since her words of assistance toward others are grounded at two points in the selfish notion of how it will impact her life. Whether or not this is a deliberate action on the poet’s part is open for debate, but it does offer a dark area to what could have otherwise been interpreted as an unselfish life. Dickinson may want to “help,” but the repeated rationale for this is that it will prevent her life from being “in vain.”
This speaks to how deeply people can want to change something in their existence. It does not potentially matter what is being fixed—“breaking,” “eas[ing],” “cool[ing],” or “help[ing]” humans or “robin[s]”—so long as something has been impacted in a meaningful way while a person “live[s].” This takes the theme of the poem from a desire for a giving life to a pressing need for meaning in life that guides decisions and goals. By repeating this idea twice in seven lines and decorating the imagery with language that could have many different applications, Dickinson drives this theme home with a vastness of possibilities and self-connected reasoning for the practice.
About Emily Dickinson
Born in 1830, Emily Dickinson is one of the most well-known American poets of all time. Her public fame, however, did not come to its full height until after her death in 1886. In fact, it was after her passing that two collections of her work were published in 1890 and 1955.