If I Can Stop…

Emily Dickinson Portrait, from Library of Congress

Here’s a short poem by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) which I’ve rendered into song: a ready-to-use listening, vocabulary, and literature lesson.

No materials necessary except for the audio.

Step 1. Talk and write (before you listen)
Look at the following 9 words/expressions that have something to do with the poem: ache, bird, ease, fainted, help, hurt, in vain, life, robin. Some of the words might appear in the poem. With a partner discuss what you think the poem is about.

The first half of the first line is “If I can stop…” What do you think the speaker will try to stop if she can? Write down your speculation. Share with the class.

Step 2. Listen and write (while you listen)
Play the song 2 to 4 times – depending on student level – and ask students to write down ALL the words. Listening several times is no big deal because the song is just 0:45 seconds long.

Hint: “unto” means “into”

Step 3. Follow up speaking (after you listen)
1. Summarize the main point of the poem in one or two sentences.
2. Is the song hopeful and positive, or does it hint at sadness? Explain why, okay?
3. What would you need to do in life to have not lived in vain?

Key (text of poem):

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 fainted* robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

*Note to literary purists: The original poem has the word “fainting”, not “fainted”, which I mistakenly sung and, after working on the song for many hours, said, “The heck with it, I’m not re-singing.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *