Does Tennyson's poem "The Palace of Art" focus on identity? How? Why?
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This poem has a great deal to do with the theme of identity, and in particular with the desire of the speaker of this poem to isolate himself in a world of art, private sensation and stasis. The poem focuses on the conflict that is present in many of Tennyson's works, the conflict between art and statis and life and society. The speaker at the beginning of the poem desires to create a "lordly pleasure house" for his soul so it can dwell in a make-believe world of aesthetic beauty and where art can rival nature in terms of its presentation. This is an egotistical wish, as the soul is depicted as only being able to thrive when it is separated from social forces and demands. The identity of the speaker is defined by how socially isolated he is, but this means that his variouis social needs are not being met. Ironically, focusing so greatly on the soul and establishing the "Palace of Art" means that the soul is ultimately not satisfied but is only impoverished. Note how this is signalled towards the end of the poem:
So when four years were wholly finishèd,
She threw her royal robes away.
'Make me a cottage in the vale,' she said,
'Where I may mourn and pray.'
The speaker thus rejects the Palace of Art and seeks a place where she can repent and re-engage with life as it really is, rather than having to surround the soul with foms of art that only imitate reality. The poem then is concerned with identity in relation to society, and whether it is possible to pursue an identity or a conception of self which is defined by its isolation to society or whether identity is something that is inextricably intertwined with society. It is interesting that the speaker at the end of the poem, whilst she expresses the wish to leave her life in the Palace of Art, she does state that she does not want it destroyed, in case she chooses to return their later on. This indicates an ambiguity in Tennyson's argument about identity: he does not come down on either side, suggesting perhaps, that the soul might need its time of isolation and separation from society at large.
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