So, today, I’m going to return to the subject of “Symbol”. I posted a while ago about it and talked about how there are two different types of symbol: conventional symbol and literary symbol.
Conventional symbol has a sort of grass roots genesis, it’s a symbol handed down through the ages from who knows where (or we do know where, but the society in general has already accepted its meaning) and is something whose meaning is accepted by all in the society. It’s meant to impart an idea, but can also inspire a feeling. So, a black cat in my culture symbolizes bad luck or witch craft or ill boding (and a feeling of ill boding). A four-leafed clover symbolizes good luck.
A literary symbol is something hand-crafted by a writer and it is used to give meaning to the story. An example is the white whale in Moby Dick. With literary symbols it is something offered to you by the author not by your folklore, and also they tend to be filled with many meanings (not just one or two) that are somewhat transcendental, often not quite as specific as “bad luck”. So, the whale can mean revenge or the object of revenge, some people even say that the whale symbolizes the devil or all evil. Literary symbols are kind of loosey goosey, you can grasp your own meaning, but a good writer will veer you in a certain direction (whale = revenge = negative) toward a fairly specific idea. A southerly blowing wind that blew the boat toward a friendly shore could be the symbol for the unexpected and positive change that “blew” into the character’s life, the change in direction toward something better.
Keep in mind that a physical object is used (or a physical act, or something that can be detected by the five sense) needs to be used for a symbol. The smell of a rose, a nod, the sound of a harp, those things can be used as symbols. A symbol is not “hatred” or “death” or “love”. But a whale can be used to symbolize hatred, an ankh can be used to symbolize love, a chocolate heart for love. And it is not a metaphor, a metaphor is a physical thing being compared to something or some idea that is unlike it (a poem compared to a tree, a fire compared to a crown, love compared to a rose).
In this poem, the symbol is lightning, it’s metaphor is a fork. Some vast, cosmic hand (whose I don’t know) is accidentally dropping the fork from several tables (or perhaps it’s hitting several tables on the way down). It’s a very domestic poem as there are mansions “never quite disclosed/And never quite concealed…” (Are they where this cosmic dinner party is taking place?) The way they are presented makes them sound ethereal, like those stories I’ve read of people lost on the moors who see houses in the mist, but are never able to approach them and they disappear upon closer inspection, or with day light. Something’s there, but not quite there. Perhaps it’s something that we aren’t quite capable of seeing. If it were a scientific phenomenon, I would say that it is matter that radiates light outside of the visible spectrum; it’s in an existence that we are not a party to. So, what does this sudden flash of light reveal? The poet also does a good job of mimicking the total darkness that appears before the eyes right after they take in that blazing bright flash of light. The Dark also becoming a symbol, the thing we cannot see and do not know.
The big question to ask is what is the meaning of the thing being presented trying to impart? And how does that reveal the substance of the poem to the reader? If it can’t do either of these things, then it’s most likely not a symbol at all.
So, is the lightning an epiphany, where a person suddenly understands the greater meaning of things in his life? Is it a burst of ideas (perhaps the ideas being the mansions) that give a greater meaning to the situation at hand?
It reminds me of the event when my religious, school roommates took me to a stand-up comedy performance. Throughout the night, I kept thinking how funny this guy was and wondered why I’d never heard of him. The light turned on when he went back to a joke about there only being an empty ice cube tray and a crust of bread in his refrigerator (being a young and irresponsible bachelor) and he said, “and that crust of bread was Jesus…” Oh, I know what my roommates had dragged me to, I thought. I felt a little tricked (especially when my roommates goaded me to go up and testify – “um, my Jesus is a Sara Lee pound cake.”) I did not think it an adequate symbol as Jesus was being presented as someone who brings fullness into someone’s life (or greater meaning) and the point of the bread crust was to show how empty his refrigerator was. (So “that bread crust was Jesus” means that Jesus made you feel more empty?)
Anyhow, give the poem a read through and see what you can get out of it (and let me know what you can make out of the mansions; I can’t make much).
The Lightning is a Yellow Fork
by Emily Dickinson
The Lightning is a yellow Fork
From Tables in the sky
By inadvertent fingers dropt
The awful Cutlery
Of mansions never quite disclosed
And never quite concealed
The Apparatus of the Dark
To ignorance revealed.