ennyson taught the Pre-Raphaelites to use woman as a metaphor for the artist's soul two poems — "The Lady of Shalott" (text; 1832, revised 1842) and "The Palace of Art" (text; 1832, revised 1842) that influenced the Pre-Raphaelites. Both poems deal with the conflict between interiority and exteriority, a common concern for artists who consider their work to be an expression of their soul that gets sent out into the greater world. As Lorenz Eitner explains in her article, "The Open Window and the Storm-Tossed Boat: An Essay in the Iconography of Romanticism," newly personal themes for art made it even more difficult for Victorian artists to feel their work linked to society: "As artists endeavored to express private meanings, rather than broadly shared ideas, they found it hard to maintain touch with their public" (282). Tennyson examines this problem in "The Lady of Shalott" and "The Palace of Art." In these works, female allegorical figures representing the artistic soul are confined in elaborate symbolic spaces. These structures are ultimately abandoned or destroyed, representing a failure to reconcile a secluded interior life of art with society at large. Though the poems are similar in theme and structure, each leads to a different conclusion about the role of the artist and the relationship between the aesthetic soul and society.
In "The Lady of Shalott," the titular lady lives on a secluded island in a space enclosed by "four grey walls" (Tennyson l. 15). Forbidden by some power to interact with — or even look at — the outside world, she passes the time by looking at her mirror, which shows all those who pass by her enclosure. The Lady spends her days weaving a great tapestry of what she sees. It is described as a "web with colours gay" (l. 38). This artistic creation serves to ally the Lady with the artistic temperament. She becomes a metaphor for the soul of the artist.
In the poem, when the lady defies her role and turns outward, looking out the window and seeing the knight Lancelot, her carefully constructed interior space falls apart. Tennyson writes, "Out flew the web and floated wide; The mirror cracked from side to side" (ll. 14-15). Once the lady has connected directly with the outside world, her work of art is irreparably compromised. This perhaps represents the way the outside world compromises the artistic output of a soul. This poem represents a very anxious and pessimistic view of the conflict between the inner life of the artist and the influence of the external world. When the artistic soul, represented by the Lady of Shalott, remains separated from society, the production of art is unfettered and successful. When the outside world enters in, art suffers or even becomes impossible — the weaving tools are broken or scattered. Contact with society is also damaging and possibly deadly to this soul. The poem ends with the death of the Lady. Tennyson seems to imply that interiority and exteriority cannot be reconciled for the sensitive artist. In "The Palace of Art," the poet presents a different perspective on this conflict, again through allegory.
In "The Palace of Art," a female figure, referred to as the "soul," inhabits an elaborate mansion. Each room inside represents an exquisite example of some artistic technique or style. Altogether a splendorous variety of art is on display, from "every landscape fair, As fit for every mood of mind to "choice paintings of wise men." As in "The Lady of Shalott," the female character in this poem is secluded and enclosed by her artistic environment. She sits in "God-like isolation" in contact only with the beautiful attributes of the palace the narrator has constructed for her. At first, there is nothing to disturb the conscience of the "soul." As James Kincaid explains, "the palace stands finally as a symbol of the life of imagination, its ability to integrate and balance." The soul "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."
However, the poem eventually shifts in tone, as God admonishes the soul for her solitude and distance from humanity. The charms of the palace become menacing and finally the soul quits her fortress of aestheticism for "a cottage in the vale." There is no destruction in this poem, as there is in "The Lady of Shalott," but a judgment is expressed. The artistic soul cannot concern herself only with aesthetics, ignoring society. Some morally defensible balance must be formed between art for art's sake and art with moral purpose.
In these works, Tennyson expresses his concern with questions about the inner spirit of an artist. Through elaborately constructed and beautiful allegories, the poet experiments with two different ways of defining the relationship between interiority and exteriority in the life of the artist.
Picturing the life of the mind: Pre-Raphaelite Preoccupation with Interiority
- Domestic interiors as extensions of the feminine soul
- Rossetti's dreaming women: Three pictures of visions and imagining
Eitner, Lorenz. "The Open Window and the Storm-Tossed Boat: An Essay in the Iconography of Romanticism." Art Bulletin 37 (1955).
Kincaid, James. Tennyson's Major Poems. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975. (chapter three)
Last modified 26 December 2006