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The Artist Figure from Alfred Tennyson’sPoint of View

Discuss Tennyson’s representations of the artist figure and his conceptions of art, think about issues of esoteric isolation versus political or emotional connection.

In his poem The Palace of Art, Tennyson portrays an artist attempting to build an existence, surrounding herself with only the beauty of art in a grand dwelling place. Ultimately the artist realizes that art alone, despite its beauty and worth, cannot sustain an individual; the solitude finally negates any joy that she had found in the palace. Here Tennyson suggests that art, though valuable, is most effective when shared with, or on behalf of, others. The progression of this story is one piece of Tennyson’s view concerning the nature of art. Through In Memoriam, the poet exemplifies the power of art when used as an outlet through which to grieve and also a method by which to share that grief with others. In quite a different fashion, Tennyson depicts an artist as a voice for societal reform in his poem The Princess. In each of these three pieces, Tennyson expresses a characteristic of true art as he sees it – beautiful and communal.

The Palace of Art is allegedly the embodiment of the idea of a certain R.C. Trench, who claims to have once said to the poet, “Tennyson, we cannot live in Art” (Ricks, 400). This statement meant that art cannot meet every need. The introduction to the poem, in a compilation edited by Christopher Ricks, compares the poem to a passage in Ecclesiastes in which the speaker expresses a similar sentiment to that of the artist in the end of The Palace: “Then I looked on all the works my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun…Therefore I hated life” (Ricks 400).

Though The Palace of Art ends in this same sort of despairing tone, it begins quite differently. Tennyson describes the construction of a beautiful palace wherein the owner should be free from the turmoil and the noise of the outside world, basking only in the glory of her created beauty. The artist boasts

“I build my soul a lordly pleasure-house,/Wherein at ease for aye to dwell,/I said ‘O Soul, make merry and carouse,/Dear soul, for all is well’…My soul would live alone unto herself/In her high palace there…And while the world runs round and round,’ I said/‘Reign though apart, a quiet king” (Tennyson 401).

Considering the language used here, it seems that the palace is being presented by as a purely self-centered artistic creation. The artist shows no interest in the satisfaction of any except herself, despite the epic proportions of the project. Also, the latter part of the quote suggests that the palace will be used as a means of escape, protecting or segregating the inhabitant from the imperfection of the world. The presentation of art in this way communicates a certain criticism regarding this artist’s self-sufficient, content attitude.

The language used in the first stanzas of the poem also suggests that the temptation and desire of the artist, representing all artists, to live alone with her art is not only a desire of the mind or logic. In the following lines, the speaker expresses a profound, spiritual surrender to a life surrounded by the beautiful and controlled: “To which my soul made answer readily:/Trust me, in bliss I shall abide/In this great mansion, that is built for me./So royal-rich and wide” (Tennyson 402). The artist goes on to mention ‘a row of cloisters’ and ‘distant lands’ as included in the grand estate of the palace. These phrases suggest that deep human desires, such as spiritual fulfillment, represented by the cloisters, and the experience of other places and cultures, are provided for in this one structure. Therefore, the artist believes, humans can use art to supersede the satisfying effects of religion and the dissolution of spatial limitations. This self-sufficiency is a theme that pervades the piece until its conclusion.

In keeping with the theme of self-sufficiency, the speaker later expresses a disdain for gratefulness and, thereby, dependence. She describes the palace as “Full of long-sounding corridors it was,/That over-vaulted grateful gloom,/Through which the livelong day my soul did pass,/Well-pleased, from room to room” (Tennyson 403). Here, gratefulness is paired with gloom, while solitary appreciation of the decadent architecture is described as pleasing. Using more language of self-sufficiency, the speaker boasts the palace’s ability to please in all circumstances because of the variety it encapsulates. “Full of great rooms and small the palace stood,/All various, each a perfect whole/From living Nature, fir for every mood/And change of my still soul” (Tennyson 404). Here, Tennyson speaks through the unsuspecting artist, stating that in her confidence, she has betrayed a subconscious plan not to grow in taste, need or person beyond that which the palace can accommodate. This course, if it had been completed, would have been a sad state of affairs indeed, as Tennyson would have the reader think.

Loneliness is another important theme of the poem, though its first appearances occur much later. It is through this loneliness that Tennyson begins to illustrate the most didactic aspect of the poem: self sufficiency – even beautiful, contented, artistic self-sufficiency – will lead to an unpleasant isolation of the soul. In the very first allusion, the artist speaks of “some one pacing there alone,/Who paced for ever in glittering land” (Tennyson 404). Though this quote does not embody the bitter despair that will enter later on, it is an apt foreshadowing. In the next stanza, the artist speaks of ‘angry waves’ and ‘bellowing caves’ just outside the palace. She comments on these ominous happenings, perhaps, to convince herself that though the inside of the palace is lonely, it is controlled, while the outside is savage and dangerous. Tennyson, through these comments, presents one of the most convincing arguments in favor of a solitary, artistic life, though it does not survive the final scene.

The speaker continues to praise her home, describing the tribute it pays to human culture and genius through pictorial representations of legends and brilliant men of history. She believes that the history of human culture can be fully appreciated by these means, though it is often through human interaction and communal remembrance that it is truly found. This idea of shared human experience is something that Tennyson seems to support by depicting her weak and contrary attempt at a tribute. Fittingly, as the reader pictures the lone habitant of the palace sitting in her hall of portraits, the feeling of loneliness begins to succeed the artist’s strong sense of self-sufficiency. “Deep dread and loathing of her solitude/Fell on her, from which mood was born/Scorn of herself; again from out that mood/Laughter at her self-scorn” (Tennyson 415). The artist realizes what wrongs she has inflicted upon herself and wonders at her own change in feeling toward her once-dear and still beautiful palace. “What! Is this not my place of strength; she said/My spacious mansion built for me,/Whereof the strong foundation – stones were laid/Since my first memory?…A spot of dull stagnation, without light/Or power of movement, seemed my soul” (Tennyson 416). The initial reaction of the artist to her change in feelings is severe, as she feels her entire way of thinking crumble with her arrogance. “Back on herself her serpent pride had curled,/No voice, she shrieked in that lone hall,/No voice breaks through the stillness of this world:/One deep, deep silence all!” (Tennyson 417).

Though she finds herself in a state of utter despair, the poem ends with hope, as the speaker wishes for the palace to remain standing, despite its reminiscence of her failure. She wishes for it to be appreciated one day by others with her, after she has coped. “Yet, 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 418). Tennyson apparently believes that not only is the self-sufficient artist a sad individual, but one in need of repentance. In this final thought, the over-arching statement of the piece is completed, presenting art as something true and lovely only in community.

Tennyson communicates through The Palace of Art how art should not be performed. Through In Memoriam, he suggests that though art cannot meet every human need, it can meet some, particularly the need to grieve. Upon the premature death of his dearest friend, Arthur Hallam, Tennyson’s “one remaining resort was to poetry, used as a narcotic for an existence made temporarily meaningless” (Martin 184). Tennyson was afraid and self-conscious when it came time to publish the piece, as it was deeply personal (Martin 324). His decision to do so, however, has been to the benefit of many. In Memoriam became not only an outlet through which Tennyson could grieve, but also an experience that he shared with generations, allowing countless others to grieve through his eloquence and passion. In this way, Tennyson himself becomes the positive counterpart to the artist in The Palace of Art.

Ironically, Tennyson did not attend Hallam’s funeral. This action has never been explicitly explained, but one can imagine that Tennyson found his own method of grieving and farewell, perhaps through the writing of In Memoriam. Tennyson, as many dealing with a recent loss do, clung to the memory of Hallam’s physical body, the most vivid memory he held of his friend. In In Memoriam, Tennyson imagines the journey of the ship he knows to be bringing the dear body of his friend back to Britain, romanticizing the otherwise grim proceeding. “Fair ship, that from the Italian shore/Sailest the placid ocean-plains/With my lost Arthur’s loved remains,/Spread thy full wings and waft him o’er” (Martin 184).

Though it has come to be loved by readers, In Memoriam, as a result of its being a strong emotional expression, was clearly not a planned project meant to entertain. “Both Romantic parks and In Memoriam must be appreciated for local, momentary pleasures, where elaborately causal plantings lead to unexpected views and relationships that are apparently divorced from a central plan, where small and nearly self-contained areas suddenly reveal themselves” (Martin 343). The poem was composed of a collection of several smaller pieces Tennyson had written in his grief. In one of the most poignant segments of the poem, Tennyson confesses:

“I sometimes hold it half a sin/To put in words the grief I feel;/For words, like Nature, half reveal/And half conceal the Soul within./But for the unquiet heart and brain,/A use in measures language lies;/The sad mechanics exercise,/Like dull narcotics numbing pain./In words, like weeds, I’ll wrap me o’er,/Like coarsest clothes against the cold:/But that large grief which these enfold/Is given in outline and no more.”

These lines, in conjunction with Tennyson’s reluctance to publish the piece, stand as evidence that this poem was a critical part of his healing process. Therefore, though he did not succumb to temptation, In Memoriam we perhaps the closest Tennyson ever came to becoming the captive in The Palace of Art, rather than her counterpart.

Through these two poems, The Palace of Art and In Memoriam, Tennyson presents several characteristics of art and the artist. He believes that art is incapable of sustaining the human spirit alone and must be shared with others. Tennyson also communicates, through his own actions, that art is a powerful coping mechanism when the artist is afflicted by any great pain. In The Princess, Tennyson presents another, quite different, aspect of the artist. In this poem, he creates a piece of art, not only inspired by others or to be shared with others, but completely on behalf of others. The Princess was written as an engagement in contemporary issues, as evidence that Tennyson, a brilliant lyricist, could write something of social substance. He wrote on behalf of women to address the problem of female education. The poet takes a stand against this particular plight, communicating his sentiments through a young woman: “You men have done it: how I hate you all!/Ah, were I something great! I wish I were/Some mighty poetess, I should shame you then,/That love to keep us children!” .

Unfortunately, despite his efforts, his attention within The Princess focused too much on the individual to seriously deal with the societal problem of women’s education. “The whole subject of female education has been so trivialized as almost to dismiss its seriousness…It is almost as it Tennyson’s deepest allegiance to lyricism had subverted his deliberate attempt to transcend it” (Martin 313). Regardless of whether or not Tennyson succeeded in his quest to better the plight of women, The Princess stands as evidence of Tennyson’s belief in art as, among other things, a catalyst for societal change and, therefore, the artist’s responsibility to wield it well. Tennyson took no pains to hide perception of art and the artist; rather, he used his works as amplifiers through which to voice his thoughts about the matter.


R.B. Martin, Tennyson the Unquiet Heart (1980)

A. Tennyson, ‘In Memoriam’ in The Poems of Tennyson ed. Christopher Ricks (1969)

A. Tennyson, ‘The Palace of Art’ in The Poems of Tennyson ed. Christopher Ricks (1969)

A. Tennyson, ‘The Princess’ in The Poems of Tennyson ed. Christopher Ricks (1969)

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