Emily Dickinson was something of a recluse, a person who doesn’t leave her home very often or talk face-to-face (in person) with other people. Yet she is known now as one of the great American poets of the 19th century.
Dickinson wrote often of death and immortality (usually related to one’s soul living forever, never dying), but her poetry wasn’t always about such deep (serious) topics. Here’s one of her more inspiring (causing positive thoughts and enthusiasm) poems:
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.
Dickinson begins by saying that “If I can stop (prevent) one heart from breaking.” To break one’s heart is to become very sad, often because someone has died or left you. (Okay, okay, so this poem talks about death, too, but it gets happier in a minute (soon).)
Dickinson says that if she can stop someone’s heart from breaking, “I shall not live in vain.” Something done in vain is done without any good coming out of it, without being successful. But if she can prevent someone from becoming sad, then her life will not be in vain – her life will have meaning.
She continues with this theme: “If I can ease one life the aching.” To ease is to make something that is painful less painful, to help someone feel less pain. Aching here means basically pain, usually related to losing or being without someone. So if the person speaking in this poem can help ease someone’s pain, then (again) we learn that she “shall not (will not) live in vain.”
Dickinson adds two more images here: “Or cool one pain” and “Or help one fainting robin/Unto his nest again.” To cool one’s pain would be similar to ease it, to make it less painful. A robin is a small bird (see photo). To faint usually means to fall down due to some temporary illness (sickness) or, more specifically, lack of (not having enough) oxygen.
We would not normally think of robins as “fainting,” but apparently it can happen. Anyway, this robin can faint, and Dickinson says that if she can help the poor bird “Unto his nest again,” she will not have lived in vain. A nest is a bird’s home (see photo), so to help one “unto” his nest would be to help the bird back into his nest, so he is safe.
Dickinson is telling us, I think, that in helping other people who need help, we can give our own lives meaning. As we approach (get nearer to) the holiday season, that’s a good thought for all of us to keep in mind (remember).
Photo credit: Two robins in a nest, Wikipedia CC