Music and Meaning (4): Living in ‘The Palace of Art’

When Tennyson published Poems, Chiefly Lyrical and Arthur Hallam reviewed it both were students at Trinity College Cambridge and, as Christopher Ricks remarks in the Longman Poems of Tennyson, 'the large claims for poetry [which 'To Poesy' expresses] reflect the high-minded opinions current in Cambridge'. One day R.C. Trench (another of Tennyson's student friends at Trinity) turned to the young poet and said 'Tennyson, we cannot live in Art'. Years later (in 1832) Trench received a poetic letter from Tennyson, attached to which was a longer work entitled 'The Palace of Art'. This is what Tennyson said to Trench in the letter:

I send you here a sort of allegory,
(For you will understand it) of a soul,
...That did love Beauty only, (Beauty seen
In all varieties of mould and mind)
And Knowledge for its beauty; or if Good,
Good only for its beauty, seeing not
That Beauty, Good, and Knowledge, are three sisters
That doat upon each other, friends to man,
... And never can be sundered without tears.'

Tennyson claims that 'The Palace of Art' is allegorical: although the poem tells a literal story about a beautiful palace, it is also intended to express a more meaningful indirect message, about the interdependence of beauty, goodness and knowledge. Tennyson also claims that Trench 'will understand' the allegory. Remembering both that Trench was a fellow Cambridge student and that he made that comment about not living in 'Art', how might what we know about Tennyson and Trench help us to interpret this allegory?

Tennyson's letter to Trench is explicitly critical of 'a sinful soul... That did love Beauty only'. As you read and think about these extracts from 'The Palace of Art', consider how Tennyson's poetry itself appears to be responding to Arthur Hallam's idea that the 'predominant motive' in the best modern poetry (sensuous, not reflective, poetry) is 'the desire of beauty'. Do you agree with Hallam and, more importantly perhaps, does Tennyson?

'I built my soul a lordly pleasure-house, / Wherein at ease for aye to dwell'; so states Tennyson's narrator in the first two lines of 'The Palace of Art'. To begin with this 'pleasure-house' appears spectacular: 'I built it firm', says the poet (line 9), and its 'light aerial gallery' (just one of many attractions) perpetually burns 'like a fringe of fire' (47-48). Let's focus in on one important stanza (the fifteenth stanza in the revised version of the poem which Tennyson published in 1842):

Full of great rooms and small the palace stood,
All various, each a perfect whole
From living Nature, fit for every mood
And change of my still soul.

Does this initial description of the 'palace' seem appealing, and if so why? Remembering that this is a palace 'of Art' and thinking again about the poem 'To Poesy', do you think that this later poem suggests that art is able to convert Mind's 'aerial' beauty into firmly-grounded human form? The poetic voice does initially claim to have converted many different parts of 'living Nature' into various 'perfect whole[s]', with each of these separate 'whole[s]' being one individual room within the palace; on top of this, the speaker claims that together these 'rooms' are 'fit for every mood / And change of [his]...still soul'. As we read on we'll discover that these self-sufficient 'rooms' do not independently suffice to satisfy the soul, however, and perhaps there is already a hint of this idea in stanza fifteen's unusual double-emphasis on 'living Nature' and 'change' on the one hand, and stillness and stasis on the other.

Compare stanza 15 (quoted above) with this much later stanza, the thirteenth from last in the poem:

A spot of dull stagnation, without light
Or power of movement, seemed my soul,
'Mid onward-sloping motions infinite
Making for one sure goal.

By the end of the poem the narrative voice appears to have entirely changed its perspective: whereas before it seemed that the narrator had managed to perfectly contain all of 'living Nature' within the 'rooms' of his 'palace', now both the palace and the soul appear to be entirely divorced from living Nature: in fact, Nature itself now appears to be making for 'one sure goal', and it is by contrasting such 'power of movement' with its own stagnant state that the soul now recognises the limitations of its (previously beautiful) stillness. Of course, stillness has been subtly associated with stagnancy all throughout this poem: to give just one more example, we feel slightly disconcerted when during the narrator's grand tour of the palace he directs us into one room where 'world-worn grasped his song, / And somewhat grimly smiled'.

Remembering how the 'Aestheticism' movement held art's function to be to provide refined sensuous pleasure in direct opposition to performing ethical functions, and how Angela Leighton links Tennyson to Aestheticism via Arthur Hallam, what are the implications of the fact that Tennyson explicitly states that 'The Palace of Art' is an 'allegory' about a 'sinful soul... that did love beauty only'? If Tennyson's poem is stressing the importance of something other or greater than beauty, might this mean that he never fully agreed with Hallam? How appropriate do you think it is to refer to Tennyson as 'a poet of sensation'?

Concluding our analysis of 'The Palace of Art' in the following session, we should be able to tackle these questions more directly and effectively by focussing on what 'The Palace of Art' has to say about music in particular. Interestingly, it is precisely when his poet's soul is 'singing', that the narrator says she is 'joying to feel herself alive':

Lord over Nature, Lord of the visible earth,

Lord of the senses five.'

On February 13th 1831, Arthur Henry Hallam wrote a letter to W. B. Donne, stating that 'Alfred [Tennyson] is wont to say' an artist 'ought to be lord of the five senses'; 'but', Hallam then elaborates, 'if he lacks the inward sense which reveals to him what is inward in the heart, he has left out the part of Hamlet in the play'. What might Hallam mean by this?

In actual fact, both Hallam as the theorist and Tennyson as the poet 'of Sensation' (Hallam in his letter to Donne and Tennyson in 'The Palace of Art') appear to be suggesting that the artist's use of an internal sense (perhaps so as to hear the Mind's 'aerial melody') is more important than the use of his external ones. Tennyson moreover seems to be suggesting that a person cannot possibly cultivate this 'internal sense' in total isolation; 'this poem', Tennyson also said of 'The Palace of Art', 'is the embodiment of my belief that the Godlike life is with man and for man'. Ultimately, the soul in the poem is dissatisfied because it builds a home unto itself. 'No voice breaks through the stillness of this world', the soul shrieks, ten stanzas from the end of the poem; then, six stanzas from the end, 'Far off she seemed to hear the dully sound / Of human footsteps fall'. Tennyson's paradoxical implication seems to be that an artist cannot cultivate their inner sense apart from by communicating with humans: one cannot hear aerial melodies unless one listens to the human voice. To discover what Tennyson's allegory might thus be suggesting, click the link below and we'll conclude out analysis of 'The Palace of Art'.

[Go on to Music and Meaning (5): Memnon's Breathlessness in 'The Palace of Art' and 'A Fragment']

Dante Alighieri (c.1265-1321), perhaps Italy's greatest poet, is most famous for his Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy), portraying a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.

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