“If I can stop one heart from breaking” by Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson quote over sunburst photo

Just One Guy

This semester I started a men’s group for participants in the academic support program I work for at the local community college. The first meeting wasn’t exactly a knock-it-out-of-the-park experience: two guys showed up. But three’s a crowd, right?

We already knew each other pretty well, so we were able to chat about a few common topics. It was enough to count as a group.

But I wanted the next meeting to be more meaningful, so I plugged the event a little harder. On the day I arrived to set up, I walked into the dark room and was hunting for the light switch when the door opened. I turned. “Hey, Bob!” (we’ll call him Bob). It was all I could manage. I hadn’t been expecting him. I hadn’t even seen him much recently. Well, things were certainly looking up.

Bob and I sat down and chatted for a few minutes until start time. Start time came. We chatted some more.

Yep. It was just the two of us.

But you know what? We had a good conversation. I certainly wasn’t going to bail on him (“Well, guess the meeting’s canceled—see you next time?”). We talked for almost the entire scheduled meeting time. I dunno—maybe he thought he couldn’t leave. But he didn’t seem like he wanted to either.

So you know what? I consider that meeting a success. Even if it wasn’t what I’d call a group in the first place.

That’s the funny thing about success. It’s so easy to want success to look big: big numbers, big headlines, big changes. In fact, anything less than “success” feels like a failure, even if something really was accomplished.

In moments like those, when it’s tempting to discount the little good done in view of the greater good not done, we can turn to Emily Dickinson’s compact poem “If I can stop one heart from breaking.”

“If I can stop one heart from breaking” by Emily Dickinson

From Poems by Emily Dickinson (First Series), edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and T. W. Higginson, 1892

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.

The Lingo

This poem is pretty straightforward, but it does have a few words you don’t hear a whole lot. That’s OK—just get a feel for them, and you’ll be confident when you say them, which will help other people learn them.

  • shall = pretty much equivalent to “will,” even in Dickinson’s time (outside of politeness and legal writing, there’s not much reason to use “shall” these days)
  • in vain = in a useless kind of way
  • unto = to (“unto” is another one of those words there’s not much reason to use these days)

Performance Tips

As you perform this poem, use these tips to make it come alive.

  • If I can stop one heart from breaking
    • Clasp your chest and look really sad
  • If I can ease one life the aching
    • Lift a hand like you’re lifting someone up
  • Or cool one pain
    • Stretch out a hand like you’re helping with a wound
  • Unto his nest again
    • Cup your hands and lift them
    • Pro tip: you don’t have to force “again” to rhyme with “pain”
  • I shall not live in vain.
    • Shake your head with determination, and smile

Memorize It

Use this recording to memorize the poem. Just play it on repeat until you get it. You can do it!

“If I can stop one heart from breaking” by Emily Dickinson

Go Forth and Perform

So next time you find yourself in a conversation about failure, or about big goals that are impossible for any single person to achieve, look for a chance to perform “If I can stop one heart from breaking” by Emily Dickinson.