Tennyson is famous for making his poems sound like what they're meant to describe, and this poem is no exception. The speaker describes echoes in the mountains, and the poem itself is filled with "echoes" of various kinds. The alliteration, internal rhymes, and the end rhymes echo specific sounds.
Check it out: "The long light shakes across the lakes, / And the wild cataract leaps in glory" (3-4). The alliteration of the repeated L sound and the internal rhyme of "shakes" and "lakes" create little mini-echoes just within that one line. The repetition of the same words ("dying, dying, dying") and the repetition of the same final line to each stanza also help to create echoes. This poem is seriously filled with echoes!
These "echoes" help make the poem sound more like a song than a poem (which makes some sense, given that the poem is about listening to the music of a bugle). Think about how many songs you know that have a repeated refrain or chorus. In fact, this poem has been set to music many times—check the "Best of the Web" section for examples.
This poem usually gets referred to by its first line: "The Splendour Falls on Castle Walls," or just as "The Splendour Falls." The first line of the poem is kind of weird, though. As we point out in the "Detailed Summary," the word "splendour" is being used in an unusual way. It usually means brilliant or gorgeous appearance, but it can also mean brilliant or very bright light. Having the first word of the poem (okay, the second word after "The") be a familiar word used in an unfamiliar way can feel a little unsettling.
So why might Tennyson have wanted to make the reader feel unsettled or out of place right from the beginning? As we read on, we learn that the valley is somehow magical—it's connected to "Elfland." It could be that the unsettling title is meant to put us on our toes for some ethereal, Elvish magic. The valley also inspires the speaker to think about some deep, philosophical questions (what remnants of our life survive after us? in what ways do the memories of deceased loved ones persist?), so maybe the unusual title is supposed to get our mental wheels turning, too.
Finally, this line gives us the image of something intangible—sunlight—coming up against (falling on) something that is very solid: a castle wall. In a way, this really sums up the poem's central question: how does something like an abstract, intangible memory (or echo) persist in our physical world? The echoes of the poem, like the sunlight, are subject to dying out and disappearing, and their passage out of our physical reality seems to be something that the speaker is very interested in tracing.
"The Splendour Falls on Castle Walls" is a short, song-like poem that was inserted into a longer poem called The Princess as a kind of break in the action. The Princess is—you guessed it—about a princess. She was obsessed with getting women into higher education (a hot-button issue in the 1800s), so she created a kind of mini-university for women with a big NO BOYS ALLOWED sign on the door. Of course, hilarity ensued when some men dressed up as women and sneaked in.
But what, you ask, does this have to do with the setting of this beautiful, song-like poem we've been thinking about? A very good question. The speaker of "The Splendour Falls" is standing in the mountains, describing the view across the valley at sunset. The light is falling against a castle, which, in the context of the story of The Princess, we're probably supposed to imagine is the location of the all-girls' university. Then, suddenly, the valley is filled with the echoes of a bugle horn!
At this point, then, the setting moves from a very traditional one for poetry—old castle, lush valley—to a more interior setting. The bugle echoes make the speaker remember old fairy tales, and soon we're transported from a natural setting to the speaker's imagination. There he imagines that he's in the magical world of Elfland (no height requirements to enter, we're guessing), but he doesn't stay there long. The poem ends up in the speaker's mind, as he contemplates how each of us might impact the world after our death.
Really, then, we have one physical setting, one mythical setting, and one philosophical setting. And hey! Look at that! There's a stanza devoted to each setting. It's as though Tennyson, in putting the poem together, really wanted to emphasize how the natural world as a setting can transport us (no passport required!) to settings both within ourselves and in myth.
The speaker of this poem is clearly a nature lover. There he is (and we're just assuming that he's a… he), up in the mountains somewhere all by himself, taking in the view of a valley at sunset. It's postcard-perfect: there's a castle, a lake, a waterfall—he describes it all. But what he sees is not the most interesting thing to our speaker. Nope. He's more interested in what he can hear.
And what he hears is the "thin and clear" (7) sound of a bugle, echoing from… well, from somewhere. We're not sure where, or even who this mysterious bugler even is. What we do know, though, is the impact that the bugle's echoes have on our speaker's thinking.
The sound of the bugle seems to spark our speaker's imagination: he imagines that the horns are coming from "Elfland," and that there's something magical about them. It's as though these echoes transport him to a different world than the one he's standing in. But that transportation doesn't stop there. From Elfland, he's off again, thinking—as the echoes of the horn die away— about other kinds of "echoes," the legacy, or "echo," that people leave behind them when they die.
Cheery, right? Still, this shift in attention tells us that we're dealing with an introspective person, one whose mind is agile enough to jump from natural vistas to fantastic realms to thoughts of death. Also, he's attuned enough to his surroundings to be sent off in that direction by a distant sound. Finally, we get the sense that, despite the gloomy Gus-side of his reflecting, the speaker is getting a lot out of this exercise. That would explain why he seems to command that bugle to "blow, and set the wild echoes flying" (5, 17).
When you get past the difficult first line (see "What's Up with the Title"), there aren't that many tough words to trip up even a novice Shmooper. Most of the vocabulary here is relatively straightforward. But there's still plenty of figurative language and poetic devices here, so be sure to check the "Form and Meter" and "Symbols" sections!
Like many of his fellow Victorian poets, Tennyson was interested in mythology, and in English and Norse mythology in particular. Everyone in the nineteenth century was interested in origins and history (this was, after all, the time when Darwin first published Origin of Species). Biologists were studying evolution, geologists like Charles Lyell were studying the history of the earth, and poets and other writers were studying the history of mythology and literature. So it's no wonder that many of Tennyson's poems touch on some of these ideas: "The Lady of Shalott," for example, is about one of King Arthur's knights. "Ulysses" is about the Greek hero Odysseus.
"The Splendour Falls" might not be about a famous mythological figure, but mythology and legend still manage to creep in: the speaker is watching a sunset (ho-hum!) and then the sound of a bugle horn in the distance makes him suddenly imagine that the sound is coming from Elfland, the home of all elves and fairies. So long real world, hello myth!
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.
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!)
Echoes are big in this poem. Really, if this poem is about any one thing in particular, it's about hearing the echoes of a bugle horn in a mountain valley. But as the speaker listens to those echoes, he starts to think about other kinds of echoes, as well. So, echoes aren't just cool to listen to; they're the jumping off point for all sorts of philosophical contemplation.
We think of this echo-y poem as being primarily about sound, since most of the poem describes those reverberations of a bugle in a valley. But the very first line of the poem describes the effect of light slanting through a valley against a castle, so light must be pretty important, too. Since we know that the light is coming in at an angle, we know that the poem probably takes place at sunset, so the light, like the echoes, is also fading away and "dying." This seems appropriate (if kind of a downer), since the larger question that the poem asks us is about the kinds of "echo" that we might leave when we die. The echoes fade, the light is fading, and everyone dies. Again—not to bum you out or anything.
If you think that a love of elves and fairytales got invented by the popularity of The Lord of the Rings, think again. Tennyson and his fellow Victorians loved that kind of fantasy and mythology, partly because it helped them think differently about their own history and their own origins. Something about the scene the speaker describes makes him think of every fairy tale he's ever heard. Maybe it's the castle he sees at the beginning, or maybe it's the wildness and extreme solitude of the valley. But when he hears the mysterious bugle echoing across the valley, he imagines that the sound originated in another world… as in Elfland, where the fairies and elves and every magical creature lives. Maybe Tennyson wanted his readers to imagine that there was something magic even in humdrum, everyday Victorian life.
The whole poem takes place in about as remote a location as you can imagine: the speaker is in the mountains, looking across a valley, and he thinks he's all alone when he suddenly hears a bugle horn, seemingly out of nowhere. The wild remoteness of the location is part of what makes the bugle seem so magical. Who's playing it? Where's the sound of the horn coming from? The fact that the poem leaves these questions unanswered underscores the importance of the untamed, unnamed wilderness to this poem.
Shmoopers, there's not a lot of sex happening here. The speaker is alone in the mountains, watching a sunset. (Yes, this would be a great spot to take a date, but he seems to be alone—apart from the mysterious bugler—at the time the poem is taking place.)