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16 January 2014

Of Brussels — it was not —

Of Brussels — it was not —
Of Kidderminster? Nay —
The Winds did buy it of the Woods —
They — sold it unto me

It was a gentle price —
The poorest — could afford —
It was within the frugal purse
Of Beggar — or of Bird —

Of small and spicy Yards —
In hue — a mellow Dun —
Of Sunshine — and of Sere — Composed —
But, principally — of Sun —

The Wind — unrolled it fast —
And spread it on the Ground —
Upholsterer of the Pines — is He —
Upholsterer — of the Pond —
                                                            F510 (1863)  J602

In the previous poem Dickinson portrays a cloud as fabric: first a sheet and then a sumptuous robe. In this charming poem she has the wind unrolling a carpet on the forest floor. He ruffles the pond with his breath and its leaves and reflections make a lovely carpet, too.

Brussels carpet, 1870, Sen. Washburne
home, Illinois, by John Burrows
As the poem begins, the narrator is looking at some kind of carpet and thinking about its origin. Nope, not Brussels, she thinks. Kidderminster? No way. Both of these locations were famed for their carpets in Dickinson's time and are still famed today. Kidderminster carpets are found in the poshest and trendiest places in the world. Brussels craftsmen, known for their wool carpets, introduced the machined uncut-loop pile. Dickinson would probably have seen at least one American-made Brussels carpet on someone's floor in Amherst.
       The narrator's carpet comes from the woods, bought and carried by the winds who sold it to her. The price, fortunately, was so "gentle" that even a beggar or bird could afford it. Ah, generous wind to so please the impoverished bird and beggar.
What did this carpet look like? This is the puzzle part of the poem. To begin with, its "Yards" (a measurement unit common to fabric and carpets) are "small and spicy." I take that to mean there is something small in or about the pattern and that the carpet has a spicy fragrance. Its primary color is a dull brown, and the rug is made of dry earth or leaf litter and sunshine, "But, principally – of Sun."
       The wind unrolled this carpet fast, and we are to imagine a big gust swirling leaves or pine needles across the ground, upholstering the forest floor. Dickinson's titles of "Upholsterer of the Pines" and "Upholsterer – of the Pond" are delightfully droll. And face it, "Upholsterer" is a great word for a poem – it has a satisfying fullness with its strong emphasis on the second syllable and its trailing off into "erer" as if in a mumble. It also has a quasi pretentiousness. "Carpet layer" just doesn't plump the mouth.
Joe Manomet: Pine needle carpet, Massachusetts
Since Dickinson provides us with the type of forest, pine, I think we are meant to envision a carpet of sun-dappled pine needles. I grew up in pine country and remember vividly both their scent and the soft sound of needles falling through the trees.


  1. A dun horse is a yellow gray horse with a black mane and tail. I think you are right in thinking of pine needles spread as a carpet by the wind. The poem mentions "Pines" (at the very end -- ED doesn't like to make her riddles too easy) and the light brown yellow of pine needles is like the color of a dun horse. Pine needles also have a wonderful scent. And they are "sere" -- dry but a product of the sun.

    And if you have seen pine needles that have fallen into a pond or pool -- they float and are pushed by the wind to cover the surface at the leeward edge of the water.

  2. Update: the recent Homestead redo includes a living room carpet woven to the specifications of Brussels makers, and milled in Britain.

  3. This article has pictures of the Brussels rug:

  4. I've noticed this theme quite often in ED's poems, the observation of nature containing riches "the poorest - could afford". In fact the previous one in the fascicle, "A curious cloud surprised the sky" is a variation on this theme too.

    The wonderful effect for the reader is to begin to see this richness for herself. The next time I am in a woods covered with pine needles, I will imagine them as carpets finer than those made in Brussels or Kidderminster. ED is the upholsterer of the imagination.

    1. Yesterday I re-read one of my favorite James Schuyler poems on the occasion of what would've been his 100th birthday. The poem has a line comparing fall leaves to oriental carpets that brought this poem to mind.

      The Bluet

      And is it stamina
      that unseasonably freaks
      forth a bluet, a
      Quaker lady, by
      the lake? So small,
      a drop of sky that
      splashed and held,
      four-petaled, creamy
      in its throat. The woods
      around were brown,
      the air crisp as a
      Carr's table water
      biscuit and smelt of
      cider. There were frost
      apples on the trees in
      the field below the house.
      The pond was still, then
      broke into a ripple.
      The hills, the leaves that
      have not yet fallen
      are deep and oriental
      rug colors. Brown leaves
      in the woods set off
      gray trunks of trees.
      But that bluet was
      the focus of it all: last
      spring, next spring, what
      does it matter? Unexpected
      as a tear when someone
      reads a poem you wrote
      for him: "It's this line
      here." That bluet breaks
      me up, tiny spring flower
      late, late in dour October.

  5. If an autumn hike in New England passes through a stand of mature eastern white pine, the soft carpet of needles beneath silent columns gives an unforgettable cathedral-like feeling. It’s possible that the “audience” of ‘Mighty Foot Lights’, F507, are white pines.

    “Typically, white pines will retain needles for three years, but in autumn, 2-or-3-year-old needles will change color and drop, leaving only the current season’s growth still attached”, [which is why the species is called “evergreen”].,familiar%20with%20this%20natural%20occurrence .