Alfred Lord Tennyson's writings played a pivotal role in the development of the post-Romantic movements of the Pre-Raphaelites, Aesthetes and Decadents. Works such as “The Lady of Shalott,” “The Palace of Art” and Idylls of the Kings have inspired countless pieces of visual and literary art in direct and indirect response to Tennyson's style and themes. Many artists who lived during Tennyson's lifetime illustrated scenes from his famous poems, but Tennyson's deeper and longer-lasting influence becomes apparent when one compares seemingly unrelated 19th century works to Tennyson's early poetry. The isolated scenes described in four-line stanzas in “The Palace of Art,” in particular, expand into worlds of their own creation when read in the context of the allusions they make and the artwork the poem itself influenced. The eternal tension between the world of art and the realities of the world, which lies at the heart of “The Palace of Art,” is both exemplified and complicated by Tennyson's encapsulated mood-meditations. An exploration of the poem's influence in the decades following its publication reveals a web of intertwining themes and the styles that bind them together.
Tennyson's descriptions of the rooms in “The Palace of Art” are constrained to the space and style of one rhyming quatrain each, but—like most poetry—the meaning and content of each stanza extends far below the surface. Many of the mental images rendered by the verses rely on and reinterpret pre-established systems of significance as well as on readers' own experiences in both the art world and real world. The interplay between artifice and reality is inescapable even in the speaker's soul's supposedly isolated palace of art, because art mediates humans' conception of reality and reality shapes humans' interactions with art.
The form of this site functions as a digital metaphor for, and exploration of, the layers of meaning and influence enfolded in “The Palace of Art.” Each page refers to one of the seven stanzas in which the speaker's soul describes one of the rooms in the palace. The text of the stanza is reproduced at the top of its page and is juxtaposed with a 19th century work that reflects the stanza's theme and style. As is the case with the poem's text, the viewer forms an initial reaction to the superficial content on the page—the text of the stanza, the content and action of the image below it, the related text to the left. Each element expresses a certain basic message that conveys the reality-based event or topic depicted by the work, and indeed there is a meaningful level of interplay between the works even at this superficial level. The links embedded within the text and images of the pages function, mechanically, in much the same way poetic allusions and references do mentally. Readers of “The Palace of Art” are exposed to “every legend fair/ Which the supreme Caucasian mind/ Carved out of Nature for itself.../ Not less than life design'd” in four-line bits that trigger memories of the complex mythologies; online readers who click links are exposed to networks of related items and information that in turn link to an exponentially greater number of nodes. Each individual experiences the poem and site uniquely, because readers' pre-existing knowledge (and interest in clicking links) determines the web of ideas that is stimulated in the process. Allusions and links are not set in stone at the time of publication or reading, either; the network of related works and thoughts is transformed over time by added content and the decay of collective memory.
The primary significance of “The Palace of Art,” and the focus of this site, rises from the links in artistic themes and styles that developed in the seventy years following the initial publication of the poem in 1832. Though it reflects and responds to some of the ideas and problems of Romanticism and refers back to characters from mythology, the poem primarily creates its own original moods that exist almost entirely outside of specific times in history. The deliberately selected natural environments and subtle symbols used to conjure up those moods became staples in the works of John Ruskin, J.M.W. Turner, A.C. Swinburne and many of their contemporaries. Those elements help to shape the distinctive themes and styles that these artists employed as they attempted to depict and understand the quickly changing world in which they lived.
The similarities in form and content between the works of visual and textual art selected to be juxtaposed on this site with the descriptions of the rooms in “The Palace of Art” underscore the questions of art and reality that are raised by “The Palace of Art.” The artists attempted to capture meaningful or expressive reflections of reality in their works, but those reflections are unavoidably and necessarily related to and mediated, in part, by society's existing collection of artistic representations. The artist cannot escape art any more successfully than he can escape society and reality, as the artist's soul attempts to do in “The Palace of Art.” In fact, the artist's internal conflict between a preference for the world of art and a preference for the world of human society that motivates that attempt is never quite settled; though the soul feels compelled to return to society, she says upon departure from the palace, “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” (Tennyson, “The Palace of Art”).
“The Palace of Art” allows for access to its meaning on several levels: one that is almost purely aesthetic and one that requires a deep knowledge of art and mythology. The moods created by the aesthetic run the risk of being art for only beauty's sake, but at the same time they invite uninitiated readers to experience and enjoy the art without requiring any specific knowledge of art or history. This effect serves as a justification of the merits of the purely artistic world and lays the groundwork for Pre-Raphaelite artwork that blends an appreciation of aesthetic beauty with systems of symbols and thematic representations that convey deeper messages to observant readers and viewers. This site explores, through comparison, the aesthetic and thematic similarities to “The Palace of Art” in 19th century artwork that enable the systems of meanings in those works while in turn enhancing and expanding the significance of Tennyson's work well beyond its original publication.