life, and death, and giants

One time Emily Dickinson wrote a poem.

Life, and Death, and Giants

Such as these, are still.

Minor apparatus, hopper of the mill,

Beetle at the candle,

Or a fife’s small fame,

Maintain by accident

That they proclaim.

Ashok Karra introduced me to this poem. Karra has a great blog, especially if you’re into poetry, I highly recommend checking it out. Karra did a great reading of this poem. I’d like to offer another. My poem was taken from the Emily Dickinson collection at Project Gutenberg. As such, it lacks the dashes.

The poem may be read as a commentary on the dominance of inflated concepts in peoples’ lives. 

“Life, and Death, and Giants” are the great fixations people hold. I will then refer to them as the ‘Big Concepts.’ “Life” is all we have, all we know. “The Miracle of Life.” Life as being something precious. Something finite and continually expended. A tire with a leak, a boat with a hole. As such, we worry and fuss: “is this a good way to spend it? How about this?” This drains Life too. 

“Death”: the uncrossable upper-bound of Life—what bestows Life its value. However, our obsession with self-preservation and immortalization is driven by Death. It is the apparent presence of Death that spawns this fixation.

“Giants” is vague. Giants are typically thought of as fantastical creatures—they don’t exist. However, they are unmistakably humanoid. Giants are people like us, but, in a sense, larger. Now what could that refer to? What figures appear as “Giants” to us? The celebrities, the idols, the historic figures we all know and we all talk about. People are always disappointed upon meeting their Giants, as it shrinks them to human-size.

An absence of motion is introduced by “are still,” but also the act of maintaining. The action of still being (there), remaining. The line indicates that “Life, and Death, and Giants” remain now, and shall remain in time. “Still” also reads conversationally into the next section… 

The Big Concepts are described as “minor apparatus, hopper of the mill.” They are said to be “minor” parts to a whole. Not insignificant, but not vital. “Hopper”: a bucket that grain is fed into then feeds out of—though at a restricted rate. The hopper at a mill restricts the flow of grain, a life-giving, nourishing substance for us. 

“Beetle at the candle.” No actions are provided for the beetle. It is simply “at” the candle. A beetle, an insect, unintelligent by our standards—an apt stand-in for us. The beetle is entranced, transfixed, by the candle, but the candle also provides warmth and light. The candle sustains and illuminates—for some time, at least.

“Fife”: an instrument, whose “small fame” relates the fleeting significance of the Big Concepts. Its music is but transitory, granting only temporary pleasure. A fife also requires input—a fife does not play itself. Who plays it?

Maintain by accident

That they proclaim.

Dickinson claims these Big Concepts reign supreme in our lives (“Maintain”) “by accident” due to their definitions (“accident/That they proclaim”). Their proclamations grant permanence. Life is precious because it is Life; Death is scary because it is Death; Giants are bigger than us because they are Giants. But who defined them as such? 

We birth our own obsessions. From “hopper of the mill,” we understand that we have shackled ourselves by inflating these Big Concepts. We have formed a psychological chain-gang where we are simultaneously both prisoners and guards. 

We are transfixed by the candle’s flame, but who lit it in the first place? Who agreed it was worth watching? Will constant vigilance slow its burn?

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