Emily Dickinson's "Like Brooms of Steel"

Updated on November 11, 2019
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Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Emily Dickinson Commemorative Stamp


Introduction and Text of "Like Brooms of Steel"

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.

Reading 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.

First Movement: The Nature of Things in Winter

Like Brooms of Steel
The Snow and Wind
Had swept the Winter Street —

The speaker has been observing and musing on the nature of things in winter. She finally speaks and makes the remarkable claim that the "Winter Street" looks as if it has been swept by "Brooms of Steel." The "Snow and Wind" 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: House as Big Warm Rug

The House was hooked
The Sun sent out
Faint Deputies of Heat —

The speaker then remarks about "the House," 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 "The Sun sent out / Faint Deputies of Heat." Of course, the sun will always be sending out heat, but this speaker looks upon those dribbles of warmth as mere "Deputies." They are sent in place of the sheriff, who will not appear until summer, or late spring at the most.

Third Movement: A Tree Steed

Where rode the Bird
The Silence tied
His ample — plodding Steed

The speaker then spies a bird, who seems to have ridden in on a "plodding Steed." But the steed has been stilled by "silence"—denoting that the steed was indeed a tall tree. The tree is silenced by fall 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: Silent, Frozen

The Apple in the Cellar snug
Was all the one that played.

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 "played" that cold day, belongs to the "Apple in the Cellar." The apple is "snug," wrapped in tissue paper, preserved for the long winter months. Or perhaps even some apple wine is "snug" in its bottle, and might even be a better candidate for playing.

But they differ greatly from those outdoor creatures; those apples 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

Several online sites that offer this Dickinson 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.

Emily Dickinson


Life Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson remains one of the most fascinating and widely researched poets in America. Much speculation abounds regarding some of the most known facts about her. For example, after the age of seventeen, she remained fairly cloistered in her father's home, rarely moving from the house beyond the front gate. Yet she produced some of the wisest, deepest poetry ever created anywhere at any time.

Regardless of Emily's personal reasons for living nun-like, readers have found much to admire, enjoy, and appreciate about her poems. Though they often baffle upon first encounter, they reward readers mightily who stay with each poem and dig out the nuggets of golden wisdom.

New England Family

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, MA, to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily was the second child of three: Austin, her older brother who was born April 16, 1829, and Lavinia, her younger sister, born February 28, 1833. Emily died on May 15, 1886.

Emily's New England heritage was strong and included her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, who was one of the founders of Amherst College. Emily's father was a lawyer and also was elected to and served one term in the state legislature (1837-1839); later between 1852 and 1855, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representative as a representative of Massachusetts.


Emily attended the primary grades in a one room school until being sent to Amherst Academy, which became Amherst College. The school took pride in offering college level course in the sciences from astronomy to zoology. Emily enjoyed school, and her poems testify to the skill with which she mastered her academic lessons.

After her seven year stint at Amherst Academy, Emily then entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the fall of 1847. Emily remained at the seminary for only one year. Much speculation has been offered regarding Emily's early departure from formal education, from the atmosphere of religiosity of the school to the simple fact that the seminary offered nothing new for the sharp minded Emily to learn. She seemed quite content to leave in order to stay home. Likely her reclusiveness was beginning, and she felt the need to control her own learning and schedule her own life activities.

As a stay-at-home daughter in 19th century New England, Emily was expected to take on her share of domestic duties, including housework, likely to help prepare said daughters for handling their own homes after marriage. Possibly, Emily was convinced that her life would not be the traditional one of wife, mother, and householder; she has even stated as much: God keep me from what they call households.

Reclusiveness and Religion

In this householder-in-training position, Emily especially disdained the role a host to the many guests that her father's community service required of his family. She found such entertaining mind-boggling, and all that time spent with others meant less time for her own creative efforts. By this time in her life, Emily was discovering the joy of soul-discovery through her art.

Although many have speculated that her dismissal of the current religious metaphor landed her in the atheist camp, Emily's poems testify to a deep spiritual awareness that far exceeds the religious rhetoric of the period. In fact, Emily was likely discovering that her intuition about all things spiritual demonstrated an intellect that far exceeded any of her family's and compatriots' intelligence. Her focus became her poetry—her main interest in life.

Emily's reclusiveness extended to her decision that she could keep the sabbath by staying home instead of attending church services. Her wonderful explication of the decision appears in her poem, "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church":

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard, for a Dome —

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —
I just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last —
I'm going, all along.


Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death that her sister Vinnie discovered the bundles of poems, called fascicles, in Emily's room. A total of 1775 individual poems have made their way to publication. The first publications of her works to appear, gathered and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, a supposed paramour of Emily's brother, and the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson had been altered to the point of changing the meanings of her poems. The regularization of her technical achievements with grammar and punctuation obliterated the high achievement that the poet had so creatively accomplished.

Readers can thank Thomas H. Johnson, who in the mid 1950s went to work at restoring Emily's poems to their, at least near, original. His doing so restored her many dashes, spacings, and other grammar/mechanical features that earlier editors had "corrected" for the poet—corrections that ultimately resulted in obliteration of the poetic achievement reached by Emily's mystically brilliant talent.

The text I use for commentaries
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    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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