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We're saps for pop music. There, we said it. If it's popular and catchy, chances are, we listen to it on repeat. And guess what, Shmoopers? Victorian readers weren't all that different, so we feel like we're in pretty good company.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson was to 19th century poetry what the Beatles were to twentieth-century music—in other words, both popular and completely foundational. He wrote such famous gems as, "'Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all." We think of those lines as kind of cliché, but that's only because they've been quoted so often that they have since become cliché! Although some tunes by the Beatles might sound overplayed, that's only because they get played and re-played and covered and re-covered so often. But they were unique and original when first recorded. Just like our man, Tennyson.
Unlike many Victorian poets (i.e., poets writing during the reign of Queen Victoria in England, or 1837-1901), Tennyson was actually very popular during his own lifetime. Some of his fellow Victorian poets, like Robert Browning and Gerard Manly Hopkins, alas, didn't get appreciated properly until much later. But Tennyson's poems were popular from the get-go, for a bunch of reasons: he addressed issues that were politically relevant during his time period (just like the Beatles did in the 1960s), he knew how to write a good hook (again, the Beatles might have taken a lesson from him on this), and, oh right, he was a genius when it came to writing musical, lyrical-sounding poems.
Even Queen Victoria liked him—his long, sad poem, In Memoriam, which is about the death of his best friend, was said to be Queen Victoria's best comfort after her husband, Prince Albert, died! She rewarded him by making him the Poet Laureate from 1850 until his death in 1892, and by granting him the title of "baron" in the English aristocracy (that's where the "Lord" in his name comes from—it's not his middle name, but his title).
"The Splendour Falls on Castle Walls" is a good example of what Tennyson was up to during his career. It's a song-like poem in which a speaker hears a bugle echo around a beautiful valley around sunset. It's actually sometimes called "The Bugle Song" because it sounds so musical. It's one of Tennyson's best-known poems, but what isn't widely known is that it was originally published as part of a much longer poem called The Princess. The Princess is about whether or not women should be allowed to go to college, which was one of the hot-button issues of Tennyson's day. Nowadays, most people don't bother with reading all of The Princess (although you should—check for the link to the full text in the "Best of the Web" section!) and instead focus on shorter lyrics, like "Splendour Falls," within the longer poem.
What kind of an "echo" (or memory, or legacy) will you leave behind you? That's the question that the speaker of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "The Splendour Falls" asks us to think about. The speaker of this poem hears echoes in a lonely valley in the mountains, and starts thinking about the kind of "echo" that a person leaves behind when he or she dies. Pretty heavy stuff, we admit, but it's interesting to think about.
So… what about it? Are you going to be remembered as a musician? A poet? An athlete? A student? A dog-lover? A good friend? Are you going to leave a lasting legacy of some kind? In short, what kind of an influence do you have on the world around you, and how will that influence last after you're gone? These are the kinds of "echoes" that the speaker starts thinking about when he hears the sound of a bugle in a valley and the echo that slowly fades away into silence. We're guessing that these big questions, though, will stay with you—even after Tennyson's words, like the bugle, fade away.
The Victorian Web
The Victorian Web is a useful resource for any students of the Victorian period. It provides historical context, biographies of writers, and a few articles about specific works. This is a link to their page on Tennyson.
University of Rochester's Tennyson Page
The library at the University of Rochester has a very informative page on Tennyson—check it out!
Excerpt from Gilbert and Sullivan's Princess Ida
This is an excerpt from a performance of Princess Ida, which was based on Tennyson's long narrative poem The Princess.
That'd Be a Lot of Candles
Here's a news report on Tennyson's 200th birthday celebration.
Frederick Delius's Musical Adaptation
This is a lovely musical adaptation of Tennyson's poem.
Another Musical Adaptation
This one is performed by the New Haven Community Chorus.
Victorians Had the Best Facial Hair!
Here's a photo of Tennyson in all his beardy glory.
A Portrait of Tennyson as a Young Man
This is from an oil painting of Tennyson before he grew out the beard.
Poster for Princess Ida
This is an early poster for a production of Princess Ida, the comic operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan that was based on Tennyson's The Princess.
"Music and Meaning: 'Set the Wild Echoes Flying' in The Princess"
This is a short article about the different sound patterns in "The Splendour Falls" and several other similar songs from The Princess.
The Full E-version of The Princess
The Princess is a half-comic, half-serious narrative poem about women and higher education originally published in 1847. In 1850, Tennyson published The Princess again with several additional lyrical poems added into it. "The Splendour Falls on Castle Walls" is one of these shorter, add-on poems. The original, full-length poem is well worth a read—check it out!
The Facts on File Companion to British Poetry by William Flesch
This book has a useful section on "The Splendour Falls," along with lots of other nineteenth-century poems. It's available on Google Books or at your local library.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson by John Maynard
This book came out in 2003, and parts of it are available online through Google Books.
Made for TV in 2003, this is a version of the comic operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan that was based on The Princess by Tennyson.