Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

"I Sit as God": Aestheticism and Repentance in Tennyson's "The Palace of Art"

Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

"I Sit as God": Aestheticism and Repentance in Tennyson's "The Palace of Art"

Article excerpt

ALFRED Lord Tennyson provides an interesting point of departure for readers of The Palace of Art" by recalling an observation by Archbishop Trench of Dublin when they were undergraduates at Trinity Cambridge: "Tennyson, we cannot live in Art." The poet then observes that the poem is "the embodiment of my own belief that the Godlike life is with man and for man" (Grey and Tennyson 80). This belief is demonstrated by revealing the consequences of life lived in art, life which opposes God and neglects the Godlike life which affirms and realizes true humanity. To live in art, the poem demonstrates, is to live for selfish delight, which issues not in the Godlike, but in the hellish. Tennyson presents a detailed analysis of prideful and isolated aestheticism and rejects its selfish solitude in favor of art that humbles itself before God and before other people as the objects of God's love.

This early allegory offers insight into a useful generalization about Tennyson as a creative artist: he is seldom satisfied with mere accurate observations of states of mind. He seeks to relate these states to a moral worldview. In "The Palace of Art" we see that in this worldview art has a high place, but not the supreme place, of value. Such considerations provide a fundamental approach to understand why Tennyson wrote and why he was so widely read. However, only one significant critical essay on this poem, by Richard Cronin, has appeared in the last decade. Perhaps because "The Palace of Art" is a relatively early work, it has not received what may be its due in the attention of contemporary criticism; also, much of that criticism is impatient, for political or cultural reasons, of any assertion of the moral absolutes Tennyson assumes in this poem.

In Tennyson's narrative, the soul of the aesthete--presented as feminine in gender--builds the Palace of Art as a resort for her own selfish solitude: "My soul would live unto herself / In her high palace there" (11-12), action and attitude which "shuts Love out" (prologue 14)--love of both God and man. Speddings, a contemporary reviewer of the poem, offered a telling assessment of this poem's effect and intention, finding that it "represents allegorically the condition of a mind which, in the love of beauty, and the triumphant consciousness of knowledge, and intellectual supremacy, in the intense enjoyment of its own power and glory, has lost sight of its relation to man and God" (quoted in Baum 83). Intellectual pride, expressed in aesthetic arrogance, leads to inevitable judgment. The poem's assumption that God will stand ultimately in judgment upon art and artist (and critic!) has not been well received by some modern critics. Upset by its moralizing close, Tucker for one finds the poem "confused and ultimately compromised" (117). Confusion here is functional, accurately revealing the disharmony and compromise of a life lived for vain indulgence. Baum sees in the poem "the young poet arguing with himself--some say, preaching to himself--about a question which concerns him particularly, the ethics of his profession" (85). The Victorians' special concern about the social function of the artist is clearly in evidence here, but it is perhaps an overstatement to see "argument" here--indeed, that the poem seems excessively "pat" or static may be its greatest flaw. Since the narrator/speaker is giving us a report of completed action from the perspective of a now-received revelation, argument as debate or dialogue is nowhere in evidence. The speaker offers experienced truth, exhortation instead of persuasion.

As the speaker's soul has conceived it, art's function is pure self-realization; "art for art's sake" is really "art for my sake"--my pleasure, my fulfillment. Art as such is not reverenced--the soul loves art for what it does, namely providing elegant reasons for intellectual pride to approve of itself. Beauty, knowledge, even perceptions of "good" are meant to function toward self-validation. …

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