With its whimsical opening image and singsong rhythm, this poem plays out like a kind of twisted nursery rhyme. Reading it aloud you might think of it as a theological ditty for precocious toddlers. OK, we kind of wish we hadn't said that, because now we're imagining a kind of creepy, somber preschool full of serious, pale-faced little kids chanting this poem.
But maybe that image, creepy though it is, isn't wrong at all. You may have noticed that there's something undoubtedly haunting and eerie about this poem, what with the disembodied "inadvertent fingers" and the shady house that's "never quite disclosed/ and never quite concealed." Not to mention the fearsome and mysterious "Apparatus of the Dark" that seems to hover above all of us. So ... creepy philosopher preschool it is, then. We're getting goose bumps.
Like all Dickinson poems (which only received titles from editors, not from the poet herself), we refer to this poem by its catchy first line. "The Lightning is a yellow Fork" comes right out and gives the spotlight to the big metaphor of the poem. At the same time, it doesn't even hint at the big ways this metaphor will change over the course of the poem. And that's why the title is a little misleading. The poem begins with a kind of fake simplicity, with the visual comparison of the lightning to a fork. Then it immediately explodes this simple image into a whole "Apparatus" of confusing and complex observations.
This whole poem is a kind of cool thought exercise that asks us to create an imaginary setting that ends up enacting the speaker's thoughts. Huh? Basically, it's a mind-bender that lets you wander around in Emily Dickinson's brain for a bit. First, we imagine a bolt of lightning to be a golden fork, which falls down to earth from a big dining table up somewhere in the sky. Then we begin to imagine the grand banquet hall it must have fallen from, hidden by the clouds, and framed up there by stars.
If the lightning bolt that looks so huge to us is just a dinner fork from the house up there in the heavens, how enormous must that house be? As the poem suggests, the "mansions" that go with lightning-bolt cutlery are so vast that they can only be half-imagined. They're "never quite disclosed" and "never quite concealed"; in other words, we only catch glimpses of them (like the lightning); we can't really wrap our minds around them.
The poem summons vague, fascinating images of this imaginary castle in the air, images that are veiled but highly suggestive. This process of imagining but not really knowing what to imagine acts out the speaker's attempts to figure out what's up there and her realization that we can never really know or understand the nature of the Universe and its higher power.
The speaker is a kind of non-character here, as in many Dickinson poems. There isn't even an "I" speaking in this one; the poem is in the third person and we're given no clues about who or what is musing about the lightning here. Notably, the speaker doesn't say, "I saw the Lightning, a yellow fork"; she (or he?) chooses instead simply to state that, "The Lightning is a yellow Fork" (line 1).
Why is this notable, you ask? Well, we think the fact that there's no "I" observing and speaking here adds to the strange, kind of creepy feeling of emptiness we get from this poem. The mysterious, mostly concealed "mansions" (line 5) are hauntingly, eerily lacking inhabitants (or at least ones we can see), and similarly, so is the poem.
The fact that we're not exactly besties with this invisible speaker also contributes to the poem's intriguing ambiguity, since there's no "I" to explain to us confused readers what he-she-it believes in. The fact that the speaker's image is vague and mysterious seems to match up with the fact that the picture of a higher power that it suggests is similarly vague and mysterious. Rather than simply come out and declare her faith in a specific kind of spiritual belief, the unseen speaker refuses to (or can't) tell us who she thinks lives up there in those mansions in the sky.
We bet you took a look at the first line and thought this poem was going to be a walk in the park on a balmy day. Suddenly – eep! – you realized that you were standing at the base of a glacier in a pair of flip-flops. Yep ... good old Emily D. will do that to you. The first image of this poem is deceptively easy to work out, but the rest of it really packs an abstract theological punch. Get ready to strap some crampons on those sandals.
Typing out Dickinson's poems on a Computer requires the frequent Use of the Shift Key. She uses a Lot of Capital Letters. We're not sure why She did this, and Editors used to Remove the capital letters to make her Poetry seem more Normal. Eventually some Smart Editors figured out that the Capital Letters might be Important to the Meaning of her Poems, so they put them back In. Other poets like William Blake were also Fond of Capitals, but Dickinson seems to use them more Randomly. Maybe it has Something to do with the Fact that she never Intended most of her poems to be Published. She once wrote, "Publication – is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man –."
Many of Dickinson's poems have a singsong, hymn-like quality, and that's because they're mostly written in ballad stanza. (It's no coincidence that you can sing pretty much any Dickinson poem to the tune of "Amazing Grace" – they're written in this same meter.) Poem in ballad stanza are written in quatrains of alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter, with an ABCB rhyme scheme.
What does that all mean? Let's break it down piece by piece.
First up, iambic. This poem has the rhythmic, da-DUM da- DUM da- DUM feeling of an iambic meter. An "iamb," a popular kind of metrical "foot" (or unit), is made up of two syllables, the first unstressed (da), and the second stressed (DUM). When you put several iambs in a row, you get that two-step rhythm that makes Dickinson so fun and easy to read aloud.
This particular form has alternating lines of four and three iambs. When lines have four iambs we call that "iambic tetrameter" (tetra = four, as in Tetris); when they have three iambs we call that "iambic trimeter (tri = three, as in triangle).
Make sense? No? Yes? Maybe? To be safe, let's read aloud together. Below we've put slashes between each of the iambs, and put the stressed syllables in bold. Try to really exaggerate the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables to feel the even beat of these lines:
The Light-|ning is | a Yell-|ow Fork
From Tab-|les in | the Sky
Get it? As for rhyme, you can easily pick out the rhyme pattern here, even when it's a little wonky. The last words in the second and fourth lines of each stanza rhyme. This is commonly called an ABCB rhyme scheme. Check out the second stanza to see what we mean:
Of mansions never quite disclosed (A)
And never quite concealed (B)
The Apparatus of the Dark (C)
To ignorance revealed. (B)
This works out beautifully here, because the words marked with a "B" rhyme ("concealed" and "revealed"). However, in the first stanza the last words in the second and forth lines ("sky" and "Cutlery") aren't a perfect rhyme. They're what's called a slant or sight rhyme. That is, we can see that the two words "rhyme" because of their common ending, but it doesn't sound exactly right when you read it out loud. That's not an accident – rather, it's one of Dickinson's trademarks, and the common occurrence of slant rhymes in her poems keeps them from being dully consistent in form (in our humble opinion).
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
This whole poem is basically an expansion on the metaphor in the first line. The comparison of the lightning to "a yellow Fork" (line 1) carries us immediately into an expanding world of homey imagery. Beginning with the bolt of lightning, the speaker makes us look upward, asking us to imagine a vast household scene above us, complete with an unseen being at a table who clumsily drops a fork.
The extended metaphor of the heavens as a kind of household makes the idea of a higher power both easier and harder to understand. On one hand, the speaker's use of familiar domestic images like a table set for a meal, and a clumsy hand dropping a fork, allows us to begin imagining the mysterious "mansions" in the sky. On the other hand, we can't see these mystery homes clearly, because they are, after all, neither "disclosed" nor "concealed" (lines 5-6).
The "mansions" described in this poem are, in fact, barely described at all. The second stanza evasively talks around the big houses in the sky. It hints at them but doesn't dare describe them. That's because, as the poem's conclusion suggests, they're not for us to see. We get glimpses of the "Apparatus" of divine power, but we aren't allowed to know anything more specific about it. The "mansions" are framed as shady, obscure, and half-seen, and we remain mostly "ignorant" of their true nature.
OK ... so this isn't really an instance of a symbol, a piece of imagery, or wordplay. But we've gotta at least give a nod to the poem's absent star, God. True, we never get to see who dwells in the "mansions never quiet disclosed/ And never quite concealed" (lines 5-6), and the owner of the "inadvertent fingers" (line 3) that drop the fork is never revealed. However, there's definitely the feeling that there is someone or something up there who's more powerful than any of us – and given Dickinson's various other writings about God, we can be pretty sure that's what she's referring to.
However, before we declare this poem to be a straightforward (albeit quirky) declaration of God's incomprehensibility and awesome power, we should throw a necessary wrench in the works: Dickinson's own spirituality and faith is something scholars have been debating for decades. Though her family was Christian, Dickinson herself expresses rather unconventional and idiosyncratic religious views in a number of her poems.
Even if the absent figure she makes space for here can be defined as "God," we're still not sure what the nature of her God is. And the poem makes it clear that the poet herself can't define or clearly depict God. He is unseeable, unknowable, and indescribable, which explains why God doesn't make an appearance directly in the mysterious house she builds for him. There's even something a little ominous about this absent figure; her claim that things like the lightning flash are "The Apparatus of the Dark" (line 7) implies that the divine is thoroughly incomprehensible. (It's "Dark" as in unknowable, not "Dark" as in evil, Sauron, Voldemort, etc.)
The other rather surprising thing about this vague depiction of divine power is that the "fingers" that drop the fork are "inadvertent" (line 3). How does this affect our understanding of God in the poem? Conventionally God is described as omnipotent, which is to say totally in control. It's a bit odd, then, that the mysterious inhabitant of this mysterious mansion drops the fork by accident. We're not used to thinking of God doing things by accident. The owner of these "inadvertent fingers" is thus also subject to error or clumsiness, which throws into question the total control we usually attribute to God.
There's nothing steamy whatsoever to be found anywhere in this poem. For that matter, there are no people. This is deep, metaphysical fun for the whole family.