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 neatly, enabling us to see how the speaker stumbles through her own reasoning. The first part: “If I can stop one heart from breaking” seems to refer to any heart, anywhere at any time. It sounds selfless and generous, and the speaker does not seem to care about her own condition. Ay, there’s the rub. Why is she saying any of this? Because the speaker is herself heartbroken. To help someone else is really to try to exert control over your own heart, to tell yourself it isn’t so bad.
Then the speaker moves to “life” in general: she wants to “ease one life the aching.” She hasn’t stopped her own heart from breaking; perhaps that is too unrealistic. From “aching,” a pain her heart feels internally, we move to a pain that could also be considered on the surface of ourselves, like a cut that needs to be addressed. She sounds generous, but her rhetoric betrays a most self-centered approach. “One heart,” “one life” strongly imply she must take care of herself first. She is not specific about who else she would help.
Finally, she moves beyond herself to something definite. 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 her initial wish, to “stop” one heart from breaking. The theme of heat emerges in this central line, implied by “cool,” and is reinforced by the image of a “fainting robin.” That last item builds to some kind of comment on what it means to be at rest; the poem has been moving from one action to another nearly every line. Heat demands we stop almost dead in our tracks from exhaustion, 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, in some extended sense, ingredients of heartbreak. We pursue passions, becoming overheated with love when things go well and rage when things don’t. 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.