For poetry lovers, we have a series of blogs, Poetry Lessons, guest-hosted by Emily R. Dunn of Writers Ink Books. Visit our page on every 5th (5th, 15th, and 25th) to see which poem has inspired a lesson in thinking and writing. We’ll also intersperse news about books.
Riddling Allegories in Music: Carole King’s “Tapestry”
When songs and poems haunt us, enticing us to return over and again, they have served the writer’s purpose: to have us read and re-read their words.
Sometimes the enticement is the beauty of the words or the music or both.
Sometimes the enticement is the emotion and memories that the song or poem evokes.
And sometimes the enticement is the riddling mystery that surrounds the work. We long to decipher the maze of words.
The best writers tell us everything and nothing. They reveal even as they veil.
And thus we have “Tapestry”, the 1971 song and album by Carole King.
A Little History
The album Tapestry is ranked 35th by Rolling Stone for its list of the top 100 albums of all time. It also is second on the Billboard’s longest-running albums list (Number 1 is Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon).
Lyrics here: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/caroleking/tapestry.html and video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tiQshgKO6Co
What is an Allegory?
First, an allegory depends upon an extended metaphor. We have a comparison which has multiple points for linkage.
A tapestry creates an image stitched with bits and pieces of different-colored threads. The canvas upon which it is built is blank; the needleworking artist creates the image as she stitches. The threads can be pulled out, removing the created image.
The allegory works by following through the extended metaphor > life = tapestry. However, in an allegory, a story is told. The elements of the story link to the points of the extended metaphor, each as interconnected as the threads in a tapestry.
How to Write a Riddling Allegory
In “Tapestry”, King does not bother with the usual refrain. Each stanza serves a disparate purpose: the first to build the metaphor, the second and third and fourth to work out the parts of the story, the last to connect the story to herself (and us) and conclude the metaphor.
Alliteration ties the lines together:
- 1st stanza :: rich / royal, vision / view, wondrous / woven, bits / blue
- 2nd stanza :: soft silver sadness / sky, torn / tattered, coat / colors
- 3rd stanza :: what / where, and perhaps hanging / hand
- 4th stanza :: rutted road / river rock, turned / toad, seemed / someone / spell
- 5th stanza :: gray / ghostly, deepest darkness / dressed
With the allegory creating the obvious writing skill, the song depends upon a simple paired couplet structure for each stanza. The rhyme scheme is the simplest of all, AABB. The last stanza has five lines instead of four (a neat echo to the stanza), but the very last line is a repeat of the last part of the line before.
In the song itself, King chooses to conclude with a piano repetition of the last stanza, unvocalized.
So, a seemingly simple structure for her allegory.
However, King is extremely clever with the elements of her story.
How King Writes a Riddling Allegory
Like the Moonspinners of Greek mythology, the speaker in “Tapestry” is weaving different threads together to create an image of her life. The Fate Clotho spins the thread; her sister Lachesis measures it; their fellow triplet Atropos cuts the length with her dreaded shears.
“My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue / An everlasting vision of an ever-changing hue / A wonderful woven magic in bits of blue and gold / A tapestry to see and feel, impossible to hold.”
We are our own Moirai, controllers of our fate. We select the colors for our lives, of “rich and royal hue”. In the paradox of the antithetical repetition “everlasting” and “ever-changing”, we construct meaning in the disparate parts of constancy and change. Our lives seem to push steadily onward even as they alter visibly and invisibly. When we end, our souls continue to a new existence.
This is the magic, the miracles that we don’t recognize.
The last line contains yet another seeming paradox: “A tapestry to feel and see, impossible to hold.” If we can feel it, how can we not hold it in our hands? Ah, we have a dual meaning of feel ~ touch and emotion.
Riddling Starts in the 2nd Stanza
The allegorical story begins in the second stanza with the entrance of the tatterdemalion drifter, each bit and piece symbolic of his wanderings.
“Once, amid the soft silver sadness of the sky / There came a man of fortune, a drifter passing by / He wore a torn and tattered cloth around his leathered hide / A coat of many colors, yellow, green on either side.”
He wears a coat of many colors, like the biblical Joseph, forced to leave his homeland because his brothers sold him into slavery. Joseph had to make the best of his situation—just as we should when we sell ourselves into the slavery of work rather than pursuing our dreams.
Much Mystery in the 3rd Stanza
“He moved with some uncertainty as if we didn’t know / Just what he was there for or where he ought to go / Once he reached for something golden hanging from a tree / And his hand came down, empty.”
This drifter “moved with some uncertainty”: We often don’t understand our purpose. I’m sure Joseph had many years when he wondered why he was where he was. In our pursuit, we reach for a golden item, unnamed, unclassified—yet something which we desire, the ultimate treasure. Like Adam & Eve, eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Yet his hand grasps nothing. He reaches for his treasure, reaches for the knowledge of his desire. He hasn’t found it yet. Like the fairy tale of the Enchanted Song Bird in a gilded cage in a tree, we desire songs of love—but how often do we find such love?
King merely hints at this allusion, yet it fits best with her other wide-ranging allusions.
4th Stanza Reveals as it Veils
“Soon, within my tapestry, along the rutted road / He sat down on a river rock and turned into a toad / It seemed that he had fallen under someone’s wicked spell / And I wept to see him suffer, though I didn’t know him well.”
On the rutted road of his journey, the drifter takes his ease on a river rock only to fall victim to a curse. He becomes the frog prince, transformed by a wicked spell—as we all are transformed when our desires are put off, again and again,
dreams as deferred as Langston Hughes’ “Harlem”. Click to read “what happens to a dream deferred?”
Yet who created this wicked spell? Why curse the drifter? Would the curse have fallen on anyone?
Or was it intended for him alone?
And inferred is that he needs his princess, to kiss him and remove the curse. He is trapped in his toad-eous form until he receives a kiss from someone both inherently great and innately kind.
5th Concludes and Continues the Riddling
An unknown figures enters the tapestry, one that the speaker recognizes as a companion even as she questions who he is.
“As I watched in sorrow, there suddenly appeared / A figure grey and ghostly beneath a flowing beard. / In times of deepest darkness I’ve seen him dressed in black. / Now my tapestry’s unraveling; he’s come to take me back / He’s come to take me back.”
Is he the Reaper? Death (as in Donald Justice’s “Incident in a Rose Garden”)? Click to read Justice’s poem.
Before she can discover, the tapestry and life is unraveling; the Moonspinners’ thread is done.
Riddling to Truth
The Moonspinners who provide the threads to weave the tapestry are from Greek myth. Joseph is biblical while the golden treasure in the tree could be the Enchanted Songbird story from the Orient. The Frog Prince is a European fairytale, and Death—gray and ghostly, sometimes dressed in deepest black—comes from many cultures’ mythologies.
What is this journey to find the greatest treasure of all, a journey that makes us so weary we might fall into a wicked spell of non-pursuit? Is the drifter Perseus, bringing back a gorgon’s head? Is the songbird the golden nightingale that heals the dying emperor? Or is it the golden bird that the young prince seeks, a prince who constantly makes mistakes and needs the fox’s avuncular help?
Like the best of the ancient balladeers, King doesn’t give us all the answers—deliberately, she does not.
These questions keep us returning to decipher the clues she has given us.
Her allegory draws from every where and every when and every what, just as we do.
We don’t have all the answers.
We keep returning to our own story to decipher its clues.
Clues we may never decipher.
Writing Riddling Allegories
When constructing your own poems, play with the idea of the allegory. Set up your extended metaphor, and guide your story through it.
Use a comparison that is universal. When story speaks to everyone in every time, story endures.
Use simple methods to tie your lines together. Use clever methods to develop your story. King is clever with her use of alliteration and allusions to develop her structure and story.
And leave enough clues so that your readers, like Hansel and Gretel, will journey back to your work, over and again.
Coming in Mid Summer ~ the classic Rock Allegory of “Hotel California”
But first, Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and then Occasional Poems fill up May and June.