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What is Emily Dickinson's poem "If I can stop one heart from breaking" about?

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This poem is I think an earnest, unostentatious declaration of Emily Dickinson's outlook on life and possibly also a sort of mission statement for both her life and her poetry.

Life can get rather complicated and we tend to spend a lot of our time and energy worrying about things which, relatively, really aren't that important. We worry about how much money we might make, what clothes we wear, which people we should impress, and so forth. For Dickinson, the point of life, at least the point of her life, is simply to make somebody else's even a little bit better, or easier.

She wants only to "stop one heart from breaking," or "cool one pain." This may sound rather unambitious, but it is nonetheless a laudable aim. If everybody had this as their mission statement for life, the world would very likely be a much kinder, much safer place.

Dickinson may have had her mother in mind when she wrote this poem. Her mother was left paralyzed by a stroke for the last seven years of her life and was cared for by her daughters, including Emily. Emily later wrote about her mother, in a letter to a friend:

“When we were Children and she journeyed, she always brought us something. Now, would she bring us but herself, what an only Gift.”

This quotation captures the same selfless, altruistic sentiment that is expressed in the poem. Dickinson, it seems, considered it an honor rather than a duty to be able to "cool one pain."

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This poem is essentially about Dickinson's wish for her poetry. If you look at her life, she was very secluded and very isolated in nature. Her body of work was enormous and really, that was all she had. I've always looked at this particular poem as an answer to someone who had questioned her about why she wrote. She had such a clear understanding of humanity, yet she was so isolated from it herself. This poem serves as a response to those who questioned her motives.

I think her love of nature is also shown in this poem. While she didn't write for the "fainting robin," animals certainly served as characters or references in many of her poems.

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What is the thesis in "If I can stop one heart from breaking," by Emily Dickinson?

Emily Dickinson's poem, "If I can stop one heart from breaking," provides a clear insight into the kinds of things that the author genuinely cared about. Though she traveled very little from home, Emily Dickinson had a remarkably perceptive view of the world—a world which inspired her beautiful poetry.

If I were looking for a thesis statement regarding this poem, I would study first to the main points of Dickinson's verse.

Her focus is on three things:

If I can stop one heart from breaking...

If I can ease one life the aching...

Or help one fainting robin / Unto his nest again...

In these three lines, we see that Dickinson concerns herself with a wide variety of interests: she looks to nature, she refers also to one's breaking heart, and finally, she concentrates on the quality of a person's life.

Because Dickinson does not list these things from most important to least important, we might assume that to the author, all three are equally important in her eyes. She also tells the reader that her own satisfaction comes from helping others: that another's wellbeing is enough to not only make her feel happy, but to provide her with a sense of personal value in life. The concept that seems of primary significance is that helping others, if she can, will be the most important legacy she could leave behind when she dies.

When we stop to consider these things, this seven-line poem says much more than we might notice at first glance.

With all this said, my own thesis would have to reflect the sense that Emily Dickinson placed a higher value upon the wellbeing of others, rather than her own personal satisfaction, which shows her to be generous and selfless in her desire to see the world a better place.

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Who is Emily Dickinson trying to help in the poem "If I can stop one heart from breaking"?

From the poem itself, it is not evident that Dickinson is trying to help anyone specific. Therefore, it is possible that she's saying that if just one person is impacted by her poetry, she "has not lived in vain."

It's important to take a step back here, however. When reading poetry, we must make sure that we do not just assume that the poet is the speaker of the poem. The speaker of a poem is similar to the narrator of a story. That being said, I think we can make the case that Dickinson herself, is speaking here.

If we make that choice, we can tell by her word choice, or diction, that she doesn't mean anyone specific. For instance, in the first line, she says, "If I can stop one heart from breaking." She uses the word "one," rather than "your" or someone's name.  She also uses "heart" and "life" as what she's trying to save, which are very general terms to the concept of humanity. She does however, become specific in talking about the robin. In that light, we can further our case that she's being general about humanity.

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