The Palace of Art: by Alfred Tennyson - Summary & Analysis

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INTRODUCTION

      The Palace of Art was first published in 1832, but was considerably altered and revised before it appeared in the volume of poems published in 1842. "Of the eighty-three stanzas of which it originally consisted, some thirty-one were omitted, and in the remaining much was changed, while twenty-two entirely new stanzas were added". After receiving years of recasting and polishing, it became one of the most perfect of Tennyson's poems. The poem, in the words of Tennyson, is "a sort of allegory of a sinful soul", that retires to a sheltered place and worships beauty for beauty's sake. It shuts out love, with the result, that it, in turn, is shut out from Love. Finally, it realizes its selfishness and repents of its sin. It then decides to leave its "ivory tower" and to live in a valley in a cottage, to mourn and pray.

The Palace of Art was first published in 1832, but was considerably altered and revised before it appeared in the volume of poems published in 1842. "Of the eighty-three stanzas of which it originally consisted, some thirty-one were omitted, and in the remaining much was changed, while twenty-two entirely new stanzas were added". After receiving years of recasting and polishing, it became one of the most perfect of Tennyson's poems. The poem, in the words of Tennyson, is "a sort of allegory of a sinful soul", that retires to a sheltered place and worships beauty for beauty's sake. It shuts out love, with the result, that it, in turn, is shut out from Love. Finally, it realizes its selfishness and repents of its sin. It then decides to leave its "ivory tower" and to live in a valley in a cottage, to mourn and pray.
The Palace of Art

CRITICAL SUMMARY

      The poet built a magnificent pleasure house for his soul to live comfortably for all time to come. It was erected on a stone platform of enormous size, and was very plain and dazzling to look at. The poet's soul would lead an isolated life in it. She would rule there, away from the din and bustle of the world. The soul assured the poet that she would dwell in that huge mansion as luxuriously as a king.

The Construction of the Palace: The Fountains and the Fragrant Incenses

      The palace was perfectly symmetrical. It consisted of four courtyards having lawns and fountains of the same shape and size. The courtyards were green and shady. A gorgeously coloured gallery bordered its roofs, from which very distant objects could be seen. The fountains threw off wreaths of vaporous spray which wavered slowly downwards and sparkled with the prismatic colours of the rainbow. On every fountain, a statue was on tiptoe, and highly perfumed smoke of incense was rising like steam from a cup of gold. The soul surveyed the palace quietly and remarked that its beauty would dazzle the eyes of all and sundry to blindness by means of its tremulous glow and the ever-rising clouds of incense.

The Various Rooms Decorated in tune with Varied Moods of the Poet's Soul

      The palace was surrounded by long corridors through which the poet's soul passed very gladly from one room to another. Some rooms were large, and some small and each contained a complete representation of some piece of natural scenery in harmony with every changing mood of the poet's quiet soul. Some were decorated with tapestry of different colours, bright and gorgeous, while one room presented a picture of dark desolation and gloomy mystery. One represented the ocean with its waves dashing against the rocky shore. Scenes of a flowing river with stripes of shadow caused by falling showers, of the toiling peasants in their field, of the rough, steep, barren, and inaccessible rocks, of joyous life, a life undisturbed by toil, were represented in one or the other room of the palace of art, which corresponded very correctly to the different moods of the human mind.

The Depiction of Different Historic and Legendary Actions that Adorn the Various Rooms

      The scenes of Nature are followed by those of historic or legendary actions and incidents, viz, the picture of Virgin Mary in the midst of a sunny pastoral landscape, with Jesus in her arms, of St. Cecilia, the master-musician, with whom an angel fell in love, of the Houris who were to welcome the faithful Mussalman in Paradise; of King Arthur, the founder of the Round Table, who was carried away after his supposed death to the Valley of Avalon, of Europa, a wood-nymph, who was supposed to have instructed the second King of Rome in all the arts of Government: of the God of love, of Hindu Mythology; of Europa, the beautiful maiden who was carried off by Jupiter in the form of a bull of gentle demeanour: of Ganymede, a beautiful boy, who was carried off by the eagle of Zeus, and of every beautiful legend invented by the Caucasians as an allegorical expression of some great truth existing in Nature, and every inch true to life.

The Portraits of Eminent Personalities; A Sudden Loathing for Ordinary and Natural Joys of Mankind

      There were large tower-bells in the palace moving automatically. The magnificent dais was surrounded by the best portraits of wise men like the angelic Milton, kindly and tolerant Shakespeare, the sad Dante, and the old Homer. Jacob's ladder was pictured on the ceiling, the floor was all mosaic work with representations of those series of historical events that occur in the case of every nation as it develops. This series of pictures on the floor very well represents the successive stages in the history of the French people — the tyranny of taxation followed by the tiger-like ferocity of the Reign of Terror. There were also the portraits of Plato and Bacon, the two greatest of philosophers. The portraits of all the mighty thinkers were painted very beautifully. The palace lights of different colours fell upon the temples and eyes of the poet's soul. She very joyously listened to the nightingale's song that echoed along the vaulted roof. The soul had attained full mastery over all science and all the secrets of the Universe. She was indifferent to things of the world outside her palace of art. She wondered in her palace at night whether her passive enjoyment of beauty was capable of further addition or extension. From her proud heights she looked down with scorn and loathing on the world around. She decried the ordinary life and natural joys of mankind which sought their own ruin in frenzied folly. She then talked of the higher instincts and of the desire for life beyond, as if they were a peculiar possession of her own. She then, in her self-glorification, looked down upon the different creeds of mankind.

A Feeling of Hateful Solitude

      In her solitude, the soul often thought of the unexplained sorrowful life on this earth. She passed three years, enjoying herself in this way. In the fourth year, she was seized with remorse and despair. She was suddenly struck with the knowledge that she was alone. Her life now was but a hateful solitude, a living death. Her sudden perception of the never-ending advance of the human race from lower to higher conditions, startled her into a knowledge that she alone was left in stagnation without change or progress. She compared herself to a stagnant pool, and to an isolated star in the sky. Her pride in her isolation was now turned into stinging remorse. She now felt that she had left her proper sphere empty and her life's duties unfulfilled. Her sympathies for the suffering mankind awoke slowly and she became vaguely conscious of the human world outside her isolated palace. A burning sense of remorse consumed the heart, for which the soul despaired of a remedy. After full four years stay in the Palace of Art, the soul resolved to lead a life in the company of the humble people in the world, yet she did not like the palace to be razed to the ground because she may dwell in it again by sharing its beauties with others.

CRITICAL ANALYSIS AND APPRECIATION

Introduction

      The Palace of Art, first published in 1832, was considerably revised and altered later on. The poem is confessedly an allegory. That is to say, "a figurative narrative, conveying a veiled moral meaning". According to a critic, the poem is "an ornate allegory of the mental and moral disaster of an artistic recluse in the pursuit of beauty. It urges people to forswear their ivory towers". Like all allegorical poems, The Palace of Art conveys a meaning other than, and above, the actual.

A Comment by Prof. Webb

      Professor Webb commenting on the allegory in The Palace of Art remarks: "We have here then an allegorical picture of a being possessed of the highest mental powers and of every means of gratifying intellectual craving, who deliberately resolves to spend life in the contemplation of objects of beauty and in the cultivation of aesthetic refinement. For this purpose he deems it necessary to build for his "soul" an isolated abode where it may dwell apart from mankind in seclusion" .... While the aesthetic and intellectual faculties are thus cultivated to perfect development, the other side of a man's nature, the emotions and affections of the heart, is neglected and starved. Absorbed in the triumphant consciousness of her own supremacy and the enjoyment of her own power, the Soul ignores her relation to God and her duties to the human race.

An Isolation from Human Sympathy

      The soul "shuts Love out" and finds after some time that she has cut herself off from human sympathy. She then feels that while the whole universe around her is advancing from lower to higher conditions, she alone remains stationary. She sees that it is only by descending from her intellectual throne, by abandoning the sole worship of beauty for its own sake, that she can hope to share in the life of mankind and in the high hopes that humanity is heir to. She leaves her proud palace, and steps in humility down to join the common life of her fellows.

A Comment by Stopford A. Brooke:

      According to Stopford A. Brooke, "the poem marks the first rising in his mind (the poet's mind) of thought on the graver questions of life" According to Tennyson, the artist who retires to a sheltered solitude and sings his song alone refusing to hear, behind his hushed tapestries, the cry of human sorrow, or human love, meets with a woeful disillusionment. He loses love, for love is only gained by loving: and he loses beauty, for beauty is the child of love.

Passion and Beauty are Infused

      Passion is given to the poem by Tennyson by making the soul a person who goes through pride to dreadful pain, and through pain into repentance. Beauty is given to the poem by the description of the palace which embodies all the various arts and wisdom of the world in imaginative symbolism.

Picturesque Quality in the Poem

      The whole palace is dedicated to loveliness. The rooms are filled with the great painter's art: all fair landscape is there, and pictures of great romance from Christian history, from Arabia, India, Greece, and Rome; portraits of the great poets, and the floors, in choicely planned mosaic is wrought the human tale of the wide world's history.

The Transition of Mind

      Then comes the, punishment despair, confusion of mind, fear and hatred of solitude, self-scorn, terrible silence, and hatred of life and death. At last she cries:

What is it that shall take away my sin
And save me lest I die.

      And out of the repentant cry comes escape from the dreadful comradeship of herself.

Make me a cottage, in the vale, she said
Where I may mourn and pray.

An Allegory Blended with Pictorial Quality

      Apart from the allegorical meaning, the beauty of the poem lies in its superb pictorial quality. Like Keats, Tennyson paints picture after picture, while describing the paintings with which the walls of the palace were decorated. The landscapes of the tapestry are themselves pictures. Each landscape is done in four lines and is done to perfection.

Conclusion

      The conclusion of the poem comes as a sort of anti-climax. It would have been artistically better if the poet had provided a suggestive ending to the poem. In spite of this trivial defect, the poem is a masterpiece of superb craftsmanship, and cannot be easily surpassed for its allegorical significance, pictorial effects, and finished artistry.

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