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18 March 2015

The Lightning playeth — all the while —

The Lightning playeth — all the while —
But when He singeth — then —
Ourselves are conscious He exist —
And we approach Him — stern —

With Insulators — and a Glove —
Whose short — sepulchral Bass
Alarms us — tho' His Yellow feet
May pass — and counterpass —

Upon the Ropes — above our Head —
Continual — with the News —
Nor We so much as check our speech —
Nor stop to cross Ourselves —
                                           F595 (1863)  J630

Lightning is a threat; thunder is not. Yet, as Dickinson points out in this poem, we pay no attention to the real threat until we hear the boom of its "sepulchral Bass". 
In the first stanza, lightning plays but is unnoticed until it sings. Dickinson uses the antiquated (even in her time) "playeth" and "singeth" to, it seems, evoke the grandeur of Shakespearean or biblical language. Not until we hear the thunder do we get serious about the danger, checking insulation and donning protective gloves.

The second stanza has bystanders alarmed by thunder although the "Yellow feet" of lightning have been crisscrossing the sky above. I like the image of lightning passing back and forth "Upon the Ropes – above our Head" as if it were part of a circus act.
  The last lines provide a commentary on human nature. There lightning is, right over our heads, with the "News" about its deadly force, but we don't pause in our conversation and certainly don't "stop to cross Ourselves". God should have a megaphone, is the implication. Our lives are fraught with existential danger but unless there's a clap of thunder in our ears we chatter obliviously away.   


  1. I've been thinking about this poem a lot this week, in light of our current drought in CA. How easy it is to ignore potential danger until it is right upon us (lightning makes the loudest sound when it is close). I suppose this poem can be applied to many scenarios, and that this is a good example of ED telling the truth in slant.

    1. And her powerful gift of metaphors drawn from nature.

  2. I think one can also see some playful references to the telegraph lines "continual with the news" above their heads.