If I Can Stop One Heart from Breaking

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
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

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10 Responses to If I Can Stop One Heart from Breaking

  1. Vito says:

    So inspiring and insightful, thank you very much, dear Jeff.

    Helping others (especially those who has some problems with health, home or something like that) is bliss. Let’s resurrect kindness in our stern hearts, let’s bring hope into lives of poor people.

    Never hold grudges at anyone, friends.
    We all can get into a big trouble one day and no one may appear to help.

    Have a nice week, everybody)

  2. emiliano says:

    Dear Jeff, I like very much this poem specially now that I have been
    so much sad and sensible.

    I think it´s absolutely true by my experience from the last fourteen
    years being useful to some of the people I love my feelings have
    been better than before.

    As much as you give and love more happy you are. what ever you
    do for others it is always better for oneself.

    Thanks dear Jeff.


  3. Dan says:

    Hello World,

    Just discovered I am like Emily Dcikinson.

    Only in the sense that when I am done working I spend most of my time at home slaving after my pets cleaning while listening to the radio
    or at time simply doing absolutely nothing drinking something hot.

    Well, I do my part helping out.

    First thing in the morning throw some biscuits on the roof of a house close to mine to the crows.
    They are extremely intelligent and at times very funny.

    There is also another tipe of bird I do not know the name of; It is white and black with a long tail and also little birds.

    Then, there is the hedgehog wich is I guess sleeping by now.
    I remember when I moved here, I saw this quite big pile of dirt and I was like:
    Look there some D..K head did not know were to put that dirt and put it there.

    Only later I discovered that is the “hedgehog house”. I felt like an Idiot.

    It is really good at escavation he must be an engineer.

    What else…..Yes, when I go outside uphill for my walk I never forget to pick up some bicuits for the foxes.
    They are so beautiful.

    Thanks, bye guys

  4. Peter says:

    It is a grand idea to give sth back to society by helping people in needs. It does not have to be just a financial help. It could be any thing. It could be a small talk to calm someone down, a smile to mend someone’s heart , a shelter to warm someone up and so on ,and so on and so on.
    No matter the deed ,the reward is always one thing-that is- for you to feel good about yourself,and feel happy for others.


  5. rahul bhargava says:

    THanks Jeff..

  6. Adriana Chacon says:

    I think that your life has a beautiful meaning, helping a thousands of students to learn english, all around the world, is awesome and wonderful! (from Brazil)

  7. Rafael says:

    Thank you for your help Jeff and Lucy!

  8. Tania says:

    Hi! I do like Emily Dickinson’s poems.

    “The lovely flowers
    embarrass me.
    They make me regret
    I am not a bee…”

    Emily Dickinson quote

  9. Tania says:


    “They might not need me; but they might.
    I’ll let my head be just in sight;
    A smile as small as mine might be
    Precisely their necessity.”

    Emily Dickinson quote

  10. Tania says:


    “The dearest ones of time, the strongest friends of the soul – – BOOKS.”

    Emily Dickinson quote

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