The Splendour Falls on Castle Walls
by Alfred Lord Tennyson
Analysis: Form and Meter
Some Iambic Tetrameter, with Regular, Internal Rhyme
The Echo Meter
We'll start with by explaining the meter, since that's where many new Shmoopers often get confused when reading poetry. The "meter" of a poem just describes the pattern (if there is one) of stressed and unstressed syllables in each line—in other words, the rhythm of the words. "Iambic" describes one particular type of pattern that happens to be particularly common in English poetry. An iamb is a two-syllable pair, consisting of an unstressed syllable that's followed by a stressed syllable. (If you say "allow" out loud, you'll hear an iamb. It sounds like da-DUM.) Now, the second word, tetrameter, just tells you that there are four iambs in each line (the prefix tetra- means four). So, each line of this poem has the same rhythm: four iambs, which sound like this: da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM.
Don't take our word for it, though. Let's check that out in action:
The splendour falls on castle walls (1)
If we mark the syllables that you would naturally stress as you're reading, you'll see the iambic tetrameter:
The splendour falls on castle walls.
See? We have four iambs, or a clear-cut case of iambic tetrameter. Still, this pattern doesn't hold for every single line. In fact, this pattern is broken as soon as line 2:
And snowy summits old in story:
This line starts out in iambic tetrameter, but check out that last word: story. Notice anything about it? If you said that it adds one more syllable than a line of iambic tetrameter allows for, go right out and buy yourself some frozen yogurt, and go wild with the toppings! What you're noticing there is that a typical line of iambic tetrameter will have eight syllables (four iambs), but line 2 has… let's see… carry the one… multiply by the reciprocal… nine!
Technically speaking, then, this line has three iambic pairs, followed by a rare creature, known in poetry circles as an amphibrach. It's a three-syllable combination, where the first syllable is unstressed, the second is stressed, and the third is again unstressed: da-DUM-da. In the case of line 2, we have three iambs, followed by "in story." Say those last two words aloud, and you'll hear an amphibrach: da-DUM-da.
The same can be said for the second lines of stanzas 2 and 3, as well. What's more, the final two lines of each stanza really get away from the iambic tetrameter base, and are metrically kind of all over the place. So… what's up with that? Was Tennyson just bad at keeping a beat?
Not exactly. Instead, this was part of the poet's plan. Think about it: the poem is concerned with various echoes, and their eventual decay and passage from the world. On a sonic level, then, what better way to simulate an echo than by establishing a pattern (iambic tetrameter), then repeating that pattern with slight distortions (like adding an amphibrach to the mix), and then finally distorting the original pattern almost entirely. It's as though, in a metrical sense, Tennyson has captured the way an echo sounds as it distorts further and further away from its original sound.
Rhymin' and Singin'
The rhyme is a little easier in this poem, but it deserves a look nonetheless since it's one of the most striking qualities of this particular poem. Each stanza has the same rhyme scheme, just as each line has the same meter, or rhythm: A/A, B, C/C, B, D,D.
Now what's with all the letters? Well, A/A and C/C mark the internal rhymes that appear in the first and third lines of each stanza. An internal rhyme—you guessed it—is when two words rhyme within a line, instead of at the ends of lines. Take a look at the first line of the second stanza:
O hark, O hear! how thin and clear,
"Hear," in this case, rhymes with "clear." Now look at the third line of the second stanza:
O sweet and far from cliff and scar
Here, "far" rhymes with "scar." Cool, right? Yes. We know. Those internal rhymes are pretty catchy—they're part of what make this poem sound particularly musical. But why all the musical rhyming here? Well, since this poem was inserted into the longer narrative poem The Princess and was designed to be read as a kind of song at the end of a longer section, it makes sense that Tennyson should make it sound… well, like a song. (And you can see "Sound Check" for more on that!)