"The Palace of Art"

Much more common is the form of "The Palace of Art," which is poised between comedy and irony. Though the poem deals with a dilemma, it is rendered as a comic dilemma and therefore not the proverbially impossible one. The main body of the poem does seem to deal with a vision of life that is both wonderful and impossible; the life inside the palace is not condemned, but it cannot be maintained. Instead of the familiar ironic rhetoric, however, a new device and a new way out of the trap are introduced by the ending: the sudden arrival of an unexpected perspective that has few or no roots in the preceding matter but gives new possibilities, though not a solution. The new perspective simply leaves doors opened, suggests that the bondage is not complete, and thus releases the irony without really completing the comedy.

The concrete basis of the dilemma in "The Palace of Art" is clear, though there are many ways to characterize the impulse that is embodied in the description of the palace and its rooms, and the contrary impulse that finds expression in the recoil from the palace: art vs. life, pride vs. humility, "private sensation vs. vitalism," stasis vs. movement, isolation vs. communion with others. I put these views in this simplistic form not to depreciate them but to show how complementary they are and how, to my mind at least, they point to a problem within comedy itself. As in "The Lotos-Eaters" and "Ulysses," the drive toward gratification of the individual ego is made incommensurate with a public definition of self.

The disjunction of these once-joined public and private drives obsessed Tennyson, as it did many other artists, The Henry IV plays, for instance, are statements on this comic problem, just as many of [50/51] Tennyson's poems are. The "soul" in this poem is striving for the comic satisfaction of self-indulgence, which is pushed to the point where it not only lacks social resonance but can thrive only insofar as its distance from social concerns is marked and definite. Just to the extent that the demands of the primitive self are met, the demands of social being are ignored. The trap, of course, is created from the fact that the exclusive indulgence of egoistic demands leads not to satisfaction but to poverty of spirit.

But the separation strategy nearly works, and the initial irony of the poem depends absolutely on our perceiving the apparent perfection and convincing richness of the palace and the vision it embodies. The poem opens on an image of near anarchy, a life of ease, sensuality, and lawlessness. But the disorder is brought under control by the emphasis put on the power of the. palace's builder and by the tone: the key words, "all is well" (l. 4), give the sense that chaos yields to order. In fact, the life in the palace is remarkably integrated, carefully working against stagnation and excess:

Reign thou apart, a quiet king,
Still as, while Saturn whirls, his stedfast shade
Sleeps on his luminous ring. ll. 14-16]

The theme of discipline and control runs throughout; the palace stands finally as a symbol of the life of imagination, its ability to integrate and balance. Over and over again, the image combines order and chaos, art and nature. The four symmetrical courts, each with a "squarèd lawn" (l. 22), contain in their center dragons, spouting "a flood of fountain-foam" (l. 24). The regular cloisters are "branched like mighty woods" (l. 26) and echo the wild fountains. The emphasis is on presenting "a perfect whole / From living Nature" (ll. 58-59), creating, in other words, the ordered but vital world of art. Even the decorations in the palace are described so as to suggest in this union of energy and quiet in the dynamic balance of arrested action: "Or sweet Europa's mantle blew unclasped, / From off her shoulder backward borne" (ll. 117-18). The alliteration emphasizes the fact of movement, but that movement is held in [51/52] suspension by the erotic subject and by the skillful arrangement of the next two lines, which balance the realistic emphasis on motion with an alternate consciousness of the artificial and the stylized: "From one hand drooped a crocus: one hand grasped / The mild bull's golden horn" (ll. 119-20).

It is a world of pure and finished art. The soul's desire to include every landscape and every mood is not just the result of simple pride; it is the artist's need to rival God, to create that which, indeed, is superior to God's work in that it is not, like His, subject to decay:

Below was all mosaic choicely planned
With cycles of the human tale
Of this wide world, the times of every land
So wrought, they will not fail. [ll. 145-48]

The object is a grandly comic one, as heroic as Ulysses's and equally hopeful. It is the attempt to give life to the human soul, "joying to feel herself alive" (l. 178). The grand project fails, of course; joy turns to scorn, liberty to imprisonment. At the center if the fall is the basic image of ironic frustration:

A still salt pool, locked in with bars of sand,
Left on the shore; that hears all night
The plunging seas draw backward from the land
Their moon-led waters white/ [ll. 249-52]

But the ending of the poem refuses to complete this climactic irony:

So when four years were wholly finishèd,
She threw her royal robes away.
'Make me a cottage in the vale,' she said,
'Where I may mourn and pray' [ll. 289-92]

The movement toward repentance reveals an opening we had no idea was there. It also suggests that the trap was no trap at all, just a mistake which, in traditional comic fashion, teaches us a lesson so that we will know better next time. It may be, of course, that the alternative to isolation, the life in the vale, will create a new trap. But then it may not. The poem does not take a stand on this point, for it does not seem ultimately to be important. We have a release, and that is what counts.

This time, appropriately, there is a comic capping: the poem ends in a spirit of real generosity, tossing out yet another possibility and opening another exit:

'Yet pull not down my palace towers, that are
So lightly, beautifully built;
Perchance I may return with others there
When I have purged my guilt. [ll. 293-96]

If one extreme does not work, Eden is not lost, nor are we: we can try the other. If that does not work, combine them. There is a sort of jaunty irrationality here that is surely deliberate. No full [52/53] satisfaction is given; but then, the ironic forces have been, if not defeated, at least kept at bay.


Antippas, Andy P. "Tennyson, Hallam, and The Palace of Art" Victorian Poetry 5 (1967), 294 - 96.

Brashear, William R. The Living Will: A Study of Tennyson and Nineteenth-Century Subjectivism. Studies in English Literature, 52. The Hague: Mouton, 1969.

Hellstrom, Ward. On the Poems of Tennyson. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1972

Korg, Jacob. "The Pattern of Fatality in Tennyson's Poetry." Victorian Newsletter, 14 (1958), 8-11.

Langbaum, Robert. The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue on Modern Literary Traditions. New York: Random House, 1957.

Mill, John Stuart. "Review of Poems, Chiefly Lyrical and Poems (1833)". London Review 1 (July, 1835), 402-24.

The Poems of Tennyson, ed. Christopher Ricks. London: Longmans, 1969.

Ricks, Christopher. Tennyson. New York: Macmillan, 1972.

Ryals, Clyde de L. Theme and Symbol in Tennyson's Poems to 1850. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964.

Sendry, Joseph. " 'The Palace of Art' Revisited" Victorian Poetry 4 (1966), 149-62.

Tennyson, Hallam, Lord. Alfred, Lord Tennyson: A Memoir. 2 vols. New York: MacMillan, 1898.

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Last modified 28 March 2001