Study Guide

The Lightning is a yellow Fork Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay

By Emily Dickinson

Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay

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.

Trappings of Domesticity

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).

  • Line 1: The poem's opening gets us started on this domestic line of thinking. This metaphor depicts the striking lightning as a yellow fork, and the rest of the poem springs from this initial image.
  • Line 2: Again we look upward from the falling fork and imagine the "Tables in the sky" it must have fallen from.
  • Line 3: At those tables, there's clearly a diner that we can't see, whose "inadvertent fingers" stand in as a synecdoche for divine power – for God, that is. Interestingly, if we read the owner of those clumsy fingers to be God, that means God, in this poem at least, seems to have accidents at the dinner table just like the rest of us. Following this train of thought, we have to wonder what other kinds of things He might do inadvertently. ...
  • Line 4-5: Again, the extended metaphor of the lightning bolt as a fork is reinforced (a piece of "awful Cutlery," which is kind of an awesome and hilarious phrase). The cutlery in question seems to belong to an enormous, not-quite-visible household somewhere up there.

Darkness and Obscurity

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.

  • Lines 5-6: The parallel structure of these lines ("never quite disclosed/ never quite concealed") highlights the teasingly ambiguous nature of these "mansions" in the heavens. There's something coy about these phrases that suggests that they're lingering half in light and half in shadows. No matter how hard you look, you can never really make them out.
  • Line 7: "The Apparatus of the Dark" seems to indicate the workings of the heavens. We can take this to refer to the literal "dark," as in the night sky, or the metaphorical "Dark" (with a capital D) -- perhaps the unknowable higher power of the Universe (you know, God, etc.). This half-revealed "Apparatus," or the shady framework of the "mansions" of Heaven, is a metonymy for the unknowable, vast, and mysterious power of God.
  • Line 8: Clearly when the speaker refers to "ignorance," we can read "ignorant humans." In this synecdochal phrase, the single trait of our ignorance, or our inability to comprehend divinity, stands in for mankind as a whole.

Are you up there, God? It's us, Shmoop.

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.