Study Guide

The Lightning is a yellow Fork

The Lightning is a yellow Fork Summary

OK, you got us – only one thing actually happens in this poem: the poet sees a bolt of lightning and reflects on how the bolt is like a fork. This leads her into an imaginative meditation on this piece of awe-inspiring cutlery: if the lightning is a fork, it falls from some mysterious table, dropped accidentally by some mysterious hand, in some mysterious house. We can't ever see who's doing the dropping, or where they live, but the glimpse of the falling "fork," the poem concludes, reveals to us (poor, ignorant humans that we are) the fact that these greater powers are out there.

  • Stanza 1

    Line 1

    The Lightning is a yellow Fork

    • Easy peasy. You've probably heard the term "fork" paired with lightning before, haven't you? Just like you've heard of a "fork in the road." A "fork of lightning" is a common phrase – almost a cliché, even, so it doesn't sound entirely creative.
    • And we get the "yellow" part pretty easily, too, since all of the lightning we've ever seen is either yellow or white.
    • But wait a second. Dickinson might be taking that old phrase about a "fork of lightning" literally. Is she talking about the kind of fork you eat your salad and spaghetti with? Maybe.
    • Do you know that children's picture book The King Who Rained? It's a pretty punny book that takes common phrases and makes them literal.  Check out this picture of the cover to see a king who is raining. (Get it? "Reigning"?)
    • Now let's take Dickinson literally. Imagine it's a dark and stormy night. You hear thunder rumbling and then see a sudden flash as a golden dinner fork falls from the sky and spears the ground.
    • We usually think of lightning as beautiful and majestic. But when you compare something as big as a lightning bolt to something as tiny and unimportant as a fork, it's just a little bit funny.

    Line 2

    From Tables in the sky

    • A fork and now a table? Ooh, it looks like we are supposed to take Dickinson's phrase literally.
    • If the lightning is a huge, falling fork, it has to fall from somewhere, right? And where do forks usually fall from? That's right – dining tables. Really big ones, in this case. 

    Line 3

    By inadvertent fingers dropt

    • This is where things start to get a little hairy. OK, so the lightning is a yellow fork that came from a big table up in the sky. Now, someone dropped (or, in abbreviated Dickinson-speak, "dropt") it accidentally ... but who?

    Line 4

    The awful Cutlery

    • When the speaker says "awful Cutlery" here, she doesn't mean "awful" like, "Ew, what tacky silverware!" She means "awful" in its original sense of awe- or dread-inspiring. This is the most amazing and terrifying fork you've ever seen.
    • We're not being a smart-alecks, and neither is the speaker; we're starting to get a feeling that this poem isn't just about lightning being huge and fork-like, but maybe the lightning as a symbol of something even bigger and more awe-inspiring.
  • Stanza 2

    Lines 5-6

    Of mansions never quite disclosed
    And never quite concealed

    Finally, in stanza 2 we get to the heart of the poem: the speaker proposes that this fallen "Fork" slipped down from a big, mysterious house up in the sky, which is neither seen nor unseen. "[N]ever quite disclosed/And never quite concealed" suggests that we're always aware that it's there, but we can't see it.
    What's she referring to? Well, your guess is as good as ours – but it seems like Heaven, or the heavens, or wherever God lives. The word "mansions" suggests to us that it's a vast, possibly unending series of mysterious dwelling places that house an equally mysterious God.

    Line 7

    The Apparatus of the Dark

    Here's the kicker: this flash of lightning, the fork that accidentally falls from the divine table, is just part of the "Apparatus," or the framework of the heavens.
    Apparently, we're only allowed to see this framework, but not the being that built it, or lives in it. The true nature of this power is still "Dark," unknowable, and mystifying.

    Line 8

    To ignorance revealed.

    Hey, who are you calling ignorant? That's right – we humans are. And, as noted in line 7, only part of the picture is "revealed" to us. Things like lightning and other phenomena show us that there is a higher power at work, but we're not privileged with any more details beyond that.