Riddling Allegories :: “Tapestry” by Carole King

We continue our poetry series with the mysterious “Tapestry” by Carole King, a 1971 song from the album of the same name. Rolling Stone ranks the album at ranked 35 in 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).

Songs and poems may haunt us. They may entice us to return again and again, especially when their words pose a riddle we must decipher.

In challenging us to return for the clues to the riddle, the song serves the writer’s purpose ~ to have us read and re-read their words.

Sometimes the enticement is the riddling mystery that surrounds the work. We long to decipher the maze of words.

Sometimes it is the beauty of the words or the music or both.

And sometimes the enticement is the emotion and memories that the song or poem evokes.

The best writers tell us everything in fragments. They reveal even as they veil.

This is Carole King and her “Tapestry”, the 1971 song and album.

Lyrics are here, and the video is here. If you are not familiar with the multi-award-winning Carole King, then this 28-minute video from YouTube will give you her biggest hits by the year 1971. She had more hits after that year, too.

What is an Allegory?

First, an allegory works like an extended metaphor. We have a comparison with multiple points for linkage. An allegory, though, is more than a simple comparison. In it, a story is told.

A tapestry is a picture stitched with different-colored threads. The canvas upon which it is built is blank. The needleworking artist creates the image as she stitches. If the threads are pulled out or unraveled, the created image is lost.

The allegory begins by stating the metaphor > life = tapestry. Then elements of the comparison are revealed. As King works through her allegory, the various elements of the story create 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 (or chorus). Each stanza serves a distinct purpose. The first builds the metaphor. The second and third and fourth work out the story. The last connects the story to herself (and us) and concludes the metaphor.

To help tie the lines together, she uses alliteration:

  • 1st stanza :: rich / royal, vision / view, wondrous / woven, bits / blue
  • 2nd stanza ::  soft silver sadness / sky, torn / tattered, coat / colors
  • 3rd stanza :: what / where, hanging / hand
  • 4th stanza :: rutted road / river rock, turned / toad, seemed / someone / spell
  • 5th stanza :: gray / ghostly, deepest darkness / dressed

The story of the allegory ties the poem together, yet King also rhymes with each stanza through a simple paired couplet. The rhyme scheme is the simplest of all, AABB. The concluding fifth 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 concludes 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 Greek Fate Clotho spins the thread. Her sister Lachesis measures it. The third sister Atropos cuts the length with her dreaded shears.

According to King, “my life has been a tapestry”. 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 through the opposing constancy and change.

Our lives 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 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, “feel” has a dual meaning ~ 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.

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. Joseph interpreted the Pharoah’s dream, just as we must interpret our own dreams and turn them into reality.

Much Mystery in the 3rd Stanza

This drifter “moved with some uncertainty”. That’s like us, again. We go for years without understanding our purpose. I’m certain Joseph had many years when he wondered why he was where he was.

In pursuit of–something, we reach for a golden item, unnamed, unclassified. We desire it. We think it’s the ultimate treasure. Like Adam & Eve, we eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

In the poem, though, the drifter’s 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

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. We also are transformed when our desires are thwarted, again and again, dreams deferred as in Langston Hughes’ “Harlem”.

Yet who created this wicked spell? Why is the drifter cursed? Would anyone have triggered the curse? Or was the spell intended for him alone?

Also suggested by the lines is that the accursed drifter / frog needs his princess. Only she can kiss him and remove the curse. He will be trapped in his toad-eous form until he receives that kiss from someone both inherently great and innately kind.

5th Concludes and Continues the Riddling

An unknown figures enters the tapestry. The speaker recognizes this person as a companion even as she questions who he is. Is he the Reaper? Is he Death (as in Donald Justice’s “Incident in a Rose Garden”)?

Before she can discover, the tapestry and life unravel. 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 China. The Frog Prince is a European fairytale, and Death—gray and ghostly, sometimes dressed in deepest black—comes from the mythologies of many cultures.

What is this journey to find the greatest treasure of all? What is this journey that exhausts us? And when we stop briefly to rest, are we falling into the 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 sought by the young prince who constantly makes mistakes and needs the fox’s avuncular help?

Like the best of the ancient balladeers, King doesn’t give us any 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 the clues we are given. 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 allusions to develop her structure and story.

Leave enough clues so that your readers, like Hansel and Gretel, will journey back to your work, over and again.

And remember the 4 Requirements of Song:

  • 1] Clear Communication
  • 2] Heart-felt Emotion
  • 3] Strong Lines
  • 4] Powerful Imagery

Coming Up

We’ll touch on another allegory as we dream through the heat-heavy days of summer when we look at the classic rock “Hotel California”.

First, though, we’ll venture through the requirements of occasional poetry by looking at poems for our origins: mothers, fathers, and the country of our birth.

The Eagles land after that in August.