Emily Dickinson's "Like Brooms of Steel"

Updated on February 1, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Emily Dickinson


Introduction and Text of "Like Brooms of Steel"

For Emily Dickinson the seasons offered ample opportunities for verse creation, and her love for all of the seasons is quite evident in her poems. However, her poetic dramas become especially deep and profound in her winter poems.

Emily Dickinson’s "Like Brooms of Steel" features the riddle-like metaphoric usage that the poet so often employs. She playfully turns the natural elements of snow and wind into brooms made of steel and allows them to sweep the streets, while the coldness draws stillness through the landscape.

Like Brooms of Steel

Like Brooms of Steel
The Snow and Wind
Had swept the Winter Street —
The House was hooked
The Sun sent out
Faint Deputies of Heat —
Where rode the Bird
The Silence tied
His ample — plodding Steed
The Apple in the Cellar snug
Was all the one that played.

First Movement: "Like Brooms of Steel"

The speaker has been observing and musing on the nature of things in winter. She finally speaks and makes the remarkable claim that the street in winter looks as if it has been swept by broom made of metal. The wind and the snow are the agencies that have behaved like those hard, industrial brooms.

In Dickinson’s time were decidedly absent those big plows we have today that come rumbling down the streets, county roads, and interstates, but those simple natural elements of snow and wind have moved the snow down the street in such a way that it looks as if it has been swept with a broom. And not just a straw broom would do, but it had to be a steel broom, an anomaly even in Dickinson’s century.

Second Movement: "The House was hooked"

The speaker then remarks about her dwelling which looked as if it had been hooked. She is referring to the process of creating a rug with a loom that employs a hook.

The house is like a big warm rug as heat was emitted by the sun. Of course, the sun will always be sending out heat, but this speaker looks upon those dribbles of warmth as mere assistants or helpers. They are sent in place of the sheriff, who will not appear until summer, or late spring at the most.

Third Movement: "Where rode the Bird"

The speaker then spies a bird, who seems to have ridden in on a horse that plods along heavily. But the steed has been stilled by the amazing quietness—denoting that the steed was indeed a tall tree.

The tree is silenced by the season of autumn having blown away all of his leaves. He no longer rustles in the wind, but he does serve as a useful vehicle for both bird and poet.

Fourth Movement: "The Apple in the Cellar snug"

The winter scene is filled with things that are still, silent, frozen in place by those agents of cold. The still bird sits in the still tree, silent, waiting in the frozen atmosphere. The musing speaker detects both silence and stillness and makes them vibrant with an inner, spiritual movement.

Yet, the speaker has to confess that the only real movement, things that might be said to have engaged in play that cold day, belongs to the apples stored in the cellar. The apple is tightly wrapped in tissue paper, preserved for the long winter months. Or perhaps even some apple wine is preserved in its bottle, and might even be a better candidate for playing.

But they differ greatly from those outdoor creatures; they possess a level of warmth that allows them to play, although the irony of such playing might intrigue and tickle the fancy of the musing mind that deigns to contemplate the icy bitterness of winter.

Misplaced Line Alters Meaning

A number of sites that offer this poem—for example, bartleby.com—misplace the line, "The Apple in the Cellar snug," relocating it after "Faint Deputies of Heat."

This alteration changes the meaning of the poem: Dickinson's poem makes it clear that it is the "apple" that is the only one who played. While it might seem more sensible to say a horse played instead of an apple, that is not what the original poem states.

And, in actuality, the apple does, in fact, do some moving as it will begin to decay even though it is securely wrapped for winter and stored in the cellar.

The problem is, however, that the speaker has said that silence has "tied" or stilled the steed; he is not moving, which means that the bird is not moving. So to claim that the steed is playing gives motion to the bird, which the speaker claims is still.

The only thing that makes sense is that the speaker is exaggerating the stillness by saying that the snug apple is playing. The irony of a playing apple does not contradict the stillness that the speaker is painting, while the playing steed would violate and confuse that meaning.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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