Tennyson here alludes to the famous passage about The Writing on the Wall from the Book of Daniel. Christopher Ricks provides without explanation this biblical text — Daniel V 23-37 — where the Old Testament prophet tells Belshazzar, who does not understand the measning of the words written in fire, that he
hath praised the gods of silver, and gold, of brass, iron, wood, and stone, which see not, nor hear, nor know: and the hand in whose hand thy breath is, and whose are all thy ways, has thou not glorified. . . This is the interpretation of the thing: MENE; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. TEKEL; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting. PERES, thy kingdom is divided.
This famous episode in the Book of Daniel about the writing on the wall and the prophet's interpretation of it was used by Carlyle and other Victorians to rouse their contemporaries to political action, specifically to improve the lot of the lower classes in order to prevent a justifiably violent revolution. In using this scriptural allusion, Tennyson both presents God's judgment of the aesthete who selfishly abandons his or her social responsibility and places the psychological action of the poem in a broader political context.
[Back to the passage in "The Palace of Art"]
Tennyson, Alfred. The Poems. Ed. Christopher Ricks. (Longmans Annotated Poets Series) London: Longmans, 1969.
Last modified 11 October 2005