Study Guide

The Lightning is a yellow Fork

By Emily Dickinson

The Lightning is a yellow Fork Introduction

You'll never be able to look at a dinner table in quite the same way after reading "The Lightning is a yellow Fork." It may not be as famous as some of Emily Dickinson's other greatest hits, but it touches upon a couple common themes in her poetry: the natural world and spiritual belief.

While at first glance this poem may seem to be a mystifying jumble of dramatic weather patterns and bad table manners, it's not really about either of those things. Instead, it's a meditation on the mysterious and unknowable nature of the universe. In it, Dickinson playfully considers one of the Big Issues ... actually, probably the Biggest Issue of them all: What's out there? What exists beyond our human world? The speaker doesn't claim to know. Rather, she coyly portrays a mysterious higher power as both familiar and alien by contrasting domestic images (that's where the dinner table comes in) with the wild, scary, beautiful flash of a lightning bolt.

By juxtaposing the awesome power of nature and the everyday scene of a dinner table, Dickinson sets us up for the poem's inconclusive conclusion: that things like lightning only offer us glimpses of something greater – something that may never be completely revealed. The only thing we know for sure, according to our speaker, is that there's some kind of cosmic framework out there. In the end, all we can do is wonder about who or what sits at that big dining table in the sky.

What is The Lightning is a yellow Fork About and Why Should I Care?

Have you ever looked up at a starry sky, or maybe at a perfect seashell, or even at something as simple as a snowflake on your fingertip, and just been totally floored? Like, completely, jaw-droppingly, flat-out dumbfounded? We definitely have, and we bet you have, too. There's only one thought that goes through our minds at moments like these: oh em gee, nature is freaking amazing.

Emily Dickinson also had those moments, and fortunately she was a heck of a lot more eloquent than most of us. Instead of just being all like, "Wow, dude, that bolt of lightning was hella sick," she frames her amazement elegantly in the metaphor we see in "The Lightning is a yellow Fork." She manages to express both the awe we feel when we behold nature's kick-butt wonders and an awareness of the unsolvable mystery of the great beyond.

Dickinson's poem does something we all do in these moments of shock and awe: it tries to understand an event beyond human power – a strike of lightning – by putting it in a context that we can at least partially understand. That's how we get "The Lightning is a yellow Fork/ from Tables in the Sky." By imagining the bolt of lightning as an enormous fork dropped from a vast, cosmic table up there in the heavens, Dickinson playfully dreams up a cool, creepy image that is both easy and impossible to imagine.

Basically, Dickinson's riddle-like poem is like the struggle each of us faces as we try to make sense of the universe. We can only understand God (or Nature, or Chaos, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or whatever you happen to think is up there pulling the strings) by drawing comparisons to what we are familiar with in our own world. However, Dickinson realizes these comparisons can only go so far, since what's mind-blowing about the cosmos is the fact that we don't know much about it. Even if we, along with our speaker, imagine the heavens to be a mysterious mansion, we can't possibly imagine who or what lives inside. (Cue sci-fi music and fade to black.)

The Lightning is a yellow Fork Resources

Websites

Emily D. at Poets.org
This is a brief but thorough biographical and bibliographical reference page for Dickinson's life and work, courtesy of the Academy of American Poets.

The Emily Dickinson Museum
More info on the poet's life and work (and other interesting tidbits) can be found at the Emily Dickinson Museum's website. The museum is in her hometown, Amherst, Massachusetts.

Modern American Poetry
A scholarly website from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Check out analysis of some of Dickinson's poetry, and also articles on topics like Dickinson's dashes.

Dickinson Electronic Archive
This site has promise but is a little hard to navigate. But once you look around, you'll find great links to Dickinson's letters, writings by her family members, and articles by professor-types.

Video

Emily Dickinson Hoedown
One group sets out to prove that you can sing any Emily Dickinson poem to "The Yellow Rose of Texas," no matter how grim the poem is (in this case, the poem is "I felt a Funeral in my Brain")

Lightning storm!
Pictures of an amazing lightning storm. Can you see the fork? How about the mansions?

Slow Motion Lightning
This is actually pretty cool. You get to see a slowed-down version of a lightning storm.

Student Project
Check out this weird/cool video and reading of "The Lightning is a yellow Fork."

Images

National Geographic Lightning Gallery
Lightning is a fork that comes in many colors, not just yellow.

Putting a Face to the Name
Here's the only known photograph of Emily Dickinson.

Documents

"Emily Dickinson's Lightning"
Here's another poem that engages directly with Dickinson's, by poet Doren Robbins.

Dickinson's "Music"
A thoughtful blog entry from poet Jessica Smith.

Books

All of Everything, in One Place
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson.

From the Poet's Hand
Check out The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, an awesome edition that includes facsimiles of all of Dickinson's handwritten pages.