Having reveled in the palace that was built for her, the soul in Tennyson's "The Palace of Art" gradually begins to realize the detriments of her isolation. The creation of her beautiful song is not shared and appreciated by the world around her, but rather it reverberates through the palace, haunting her through its inability to escape and simultaneously reflecting her own predicament. While the palace offers her a seemingly rich and inspiring atmosphere for artistic creation, it suffocates her and morbid visions surround her. The soul's initial confidence is shattered and she retreats into herself.
Back on herself her serpent pride had curl'd.
"No voice," she shriek'd in that lone hall,
"No voice breaks thro' the stillness of this world;
One deep, deep silence all!"
She, mouldering with the dull earth's mouldering sod,
Inwrapt tenfold in slothful shame,
Lay there exiled from eternal God,
Lost to her place and name;
And death and life she hated equally,
And nothing saw, for her despair,
But dreadful time, dreadful eternity,
No comfort anywhere.
The soul's exclamation seems to be an admittance of despair and defeat. When the soul cries out, is she lamenting the isolation she has willingly accepted, or does she believe it represents the state of the whole world? At the end of the poem, some escape seems to exist for her, but she does not recognize it yet. What must she do to atone? In what way has the soul been lazy? Is she lazy because she depends on artificiality for inspiration and pretends to have no need of anyone else to help her create her art and to respond to it? How will she be less lazy when she atones? Perhaps the active effort required in relationships — with other people or with God—will free her and allow her to blossom and be of use. And in her new life, as it is suggested at the end of the poem, will she be able to create something meaningful and have it heard?
While she is surrounded by an artificial palace throughout most of the poem and seems to have absorbed something of the artificiality of her surroundings, the soul moves towards nature and earthliness near the end. Why does the soul "[moulder] with the dull earth's mouldering sod"? Possibly the reason is that there is something extremely unnatural about the situation that has been created for the soul: the palace with disparate things assembled. What allows the soul to be natural again? Is it her realization that she cannot function alone that allows her to become natural, crumbling and decaying in an earthly way? Or is her disintegration simply a sign that she is dying and has killed herself through her seclusion? Rather, it seems that her decay is wholly natural and part of the normal course of a life, but not necessarily fatal. The soul intends to save herself from immediate death by going to live in a cottage in a valley where she can "mourn and pray" and someday interact with others and share her art. The fact that she wants to actively atone and continue her life is a sign that it is not too late for her to rejoin the world.
Last modified 7 September 2003