Study Guide

The Lightning is a yellow Fork Stanza 1

By Emily Dickinson

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.

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