“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.
“I shall not live in vain” divides the poem into two. First there is the state where nothing has gone wrong. If the speaker’s own heart hasn’t broken, then all is well and she has accomplished something. I’m reading “one heart” as her own. One could say all she’s aiming for is to stop a heartbreak at any time, in any person. I’ll adduce three doubts with that latter reading: the movement of the poem only formally acknowledges another with “fainting robin,” which isn’t even a person. Secondly, I wonder if “in vain” can be thought of as “in vanity,” as broken hearts are certainly vain (and not in a bad sense). One’s pride is demolished entirely. Thirdly, we all know why one would want to stop heartbreak in at least one other heart: it’s to feel like one has control over one’s own.
But then there is the list that has its starting point as something having gone wrong in life. From an “aching,” presumably in the heart – I’m not sure how “life” aches except from an internal pain that follows one around – we move to a pain that could also be considered on the surface of ourselves, like a cut that needs to be addressed. Then we finally move beyond ourselves to something else. In this case, “one fainting robin.”
The central line of the poem concerns “cooling a pain.” It comes as part of a trifecta of actions,”ease, cool, help,” that are most unlike “stop.” The theme of heat emerges in this central line, implied by “cool” as well as the idea of a “fainting robin.” That last item is building to some kind of comment on what it truly means to be at rest. Heat demands we stop almost dead in our tracks, but then there’s another rest, being at home, implied by “nest.”
Heat and movement can be seen as the enemies of living well: they are, so to speak, ingredients of heartbreak. The question is that of passion and whether a point could be found that is at rest for us. Can’t we simply stay at home? The speaker slowly moves away from preventing a broken heart, as if that were impossible, through the second part of the poem. And the end of the poem, with the robin returned to the nest, suggests the first wish is a mistaken wish. One can’t stop hearts from breaking and perhaps one shouldn’t stop hearts from breaking. The importance of being at rest in some way – maybe even to fly again – is only known when one has tried and failed. There is another way of conceiving of passion, in accepting the “ease, cool, help” set of actions, which shows there is a way of motion that encourages rest in its best, not most definite, sense.