Study Guide

The Splendour Falls on Castle Walls Summary

By Alfred Lord Tennyson

The Splendour Falls on Castle Walls Summary

The speaker is outdoors and looking across a valley with a castle, a lake, a waterfall, and snow-capped mountains beyond. But he's not alone! The sound of a bugle horn echoes and dies across the valley. He listens again, more carefully—the horns he hears are the horns of "Elfland," and they continue to echo and fade. He strains to hear them and feels a deep connection to those notes, but still, they fade.

  • Stanza 1

    Lines 1-2

    The splendour falls on castle walls
                 And snowy summits old in story:

    • Wait, what? The first line doesn't seem to make sense at first. How can "splendour," which is intangible (something you can't touch), "fall"? 
    • "Splendour" seems to mean something a bit different here, though, like sunlight. Maybe we're supposed to imagine streams of light coming through between clouds.
    • So if this bright light is "fall[ing]" against the "castle walls," it must be coming in at an angle… so it must be sunrise or sunset. Which do you think it is? (Let's bear this question in mind later in the poem—there might be more clues.)
    • The sunlight, or "splendour," is streaming down and "falling" against the walls of a castle and against the snow-capped tops of mountains. Sounds like the speaker is in a valley somewhere, looking across at a castle and some snowy mountains. 
    • But these aren't just any mountains—they are "old in story," which means that many tales have been written about them. 
    • (Historical Note! Tennyson visited Ireland in 1848, just before writing "Splendour Falls." His inspiration was almost certainly a visit to a place in the mountains near Killarney called the "Eagle's Nest.")
    • There's a steady rhythm as we read this—the rhythm, or meter, is "iambic tetrameter." (Check out the "Form and Meter" section for more about what that means.)
    • The first line of this poem has two words that rhyme within the line: "falls" and "walls." That's called internal rhyme. Again, you should check out "Form and Meter" to learn more.

    Lines 3-4

         The long light shakes across the lakes,
             And the wild cataract leaps in glory.

    • Now we're told that the sunlight is streaming across lakes. 
    • The speaker says that the light "shakes." Weird, right? What would make light appear to "shake"? Maybe the water on the surface of the lakes is moving, causing the light to shimmer and "shake"? Or maybe the light is coming through tree branches that are moving in the wind? What do you think?
    • The repetition of the "L" sound at the beginning of "long," "light," and "lakes" is called alliteration—check out the "Sound Check" section for more about the sound effects here.
    • We're given another detail about the scenery: there's a waterfall, or "cataract," which is probably making a lot of noise as it falls, since the speaker calls it "wild." 
    • The word "leaps" seems like a weird choice of words, and in combination with that word "wild," it seems like the waterfall is some kind of wild animal, "leaping" down the mountainside. Metaphor alert!
      Line 3 has more internal rhyme ("shakes" and "lakes"), and line 4 introduces the first end rhyme of the poem—"glory" rhymes with "story" (line 2). Check out "Form and Meter" to learn more about the rhyme scheme.

    Lines 5-6

    Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
    Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

    • Suddenly we're not alone anymore! Or are we? A bugle (a kind of horn like a trumpet) is blown, and the notes echo across the valley and then fade, or "die," away.
    • The repetition of the word "dying" seems to imitate the echoes that the speaker is describing. 
    • The speaker addresses the bugle directly, instead of addressing the person who is blowing it. Ladies and gentlemen, it's a textbook example of a poetic tool called apostrophe—Shmoop on over to the "Symbols" section to learn more about that.
  • Stanza 2

    Lines 7-8

         O hark, O hear! how thin and clear,
              And thinner, clearer, farther going!

    • The speaker asks us to "hark," or to listen to the "clear" notes of the bugle horn. Calling the note "thin" probably may mean that it's high-pitched, and it may mean that the bugle player isn't using a lot of fancy vibrato—it's just a clear, single note.
    • The sound of the bugle is so "thin" and "clear" that it travels far on the air and echoes off of the mountains.

    Lines 9-10

         O sweet and far from cliff and scar
              The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!

    • The speaker imagines that the bugle notes that he hears are coming from "Elfland," which is—you guessed it—the land where elves live.
    • "Elfland" comes up in Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythology. Different myths treat it differently, but it's most often a kind of parallel universe or an alternate reality to this one. Fairies and elves can cross over between Elfland and our world at certain places, where the border between worlds is especially thin. The speaker of this poem must imagine that the valley is magical—that it's a place where the border between Elfland and the real world is almost non-existent, so that he can hear the bugles from Elfland in his own world. You can imagine "Elfland" as a fairy tale, Lord-of-the-Rings kind of place.
    • The speaker also tells us that the bugle notes are coming from "far" away, and are echoing from a "scar." How can a mountain have a "scar"? What can that possibly mean? 
    • The "scar" in the side of the mountain "cliff" probably refers to a kind of gap or cleft in the rock face that looked like a scar in the cliff. The "scar" would provide extra space for the sound of the bugle to echo. But it's also figurative—it's personifying the cliff by making it seem like a human face with a "scar" on it.

    Lines 11-12

    Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying:
    Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

    • The speaker again calls on the bugle to "blow," because he wants to hear the echo from the "purple glens."
    • It's another example of apostrophe, since the speaker is addressing the bugle directly. 
    • A "glen" is a valley—it's probably described as "purple" because the speaker is viewing the scene at sunset, so the sunlight has a deep reddish-purple tint to it.
    • Again, the bugle echoes around the valley and slowly fades or "dies" away. 
    • Does the line 12 look familiar to you? That's because it's repeated from the first stanza, so it's like a refrain or a repeating chorus. It's kind of catchy, too, except for all that "dying" stuff.
    • Considering how beautiful the scene is, it seems weird that the speaker keeps harping on death and "dying." Maybe the fact that the light is dimming at sunset and the echoes continue to fade makes him think about death. Let's read on to see if this gloomy mood continues…
  • Stanza 3

    Lines 13-14

         O love, they die in yon rich sky,
              They faint on hill or field or river:

    • Hmm. This line is a bit ambiguous—who is the "love" the speaker is talking to? This is the first time the speaker addresses a specific person, but we're not sure who it is, exactly.
    • The speaker tells his "love" that "they die" in "yon" (short for "yonder," or "over there") sky.
    • But what is it that "dies"? It probably means the "echoes" of the bugle horns from the previous stanzas, but it's not totally clear what the word "they" refers to.
    • More ambiguity
    • The "echoes," then, fade away across the "hill," "field," and "river" in the valley.
    • But the speaker chooses to use words like "die" and "faint," which are things that people would do. So again—is he talking about the echoes fading away and merely personifying them? Or is he thinking about actual people getting old and dying? Or is it some of both? What do you think?

    Lines 15-16

         Our echoes roll from soul to soul,
             And grow for ever and for ever.

    • Now the speaker uses the first person plural to describe the "echoes" of the bugle. He calls them "our echoes."
    • But he wasn't the one blowing the bugle horn. Is he really still talking about the horn? Or is he thinking about the "echo" that a person might leave behind after he or she dies? Something more like a memory or a legacy?
    • The speaker clearly thinks that the valley is somehow magical or mythical, since he imagined that the bugle echoes might be coming from "Elfland." That magical, mythical beauty seems to have inspired him to get all deep and philosophical on us.
    • He says that those "echoes"—whether they are literal echoes from the bugle, or the figurative "echoes" of a person's life—move "from soul to soul." In other words, these "echoes" connect people on an almost spiritual level.
    • The "echoes" he's talking about now don't "die" like the bugle echoes do—these "echoes" keep growing "forever and forever."

    Lines 17-18

    Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
    And answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.

    • Again, the speaker asks the bugle to blow the notes again because he wants to hear the echoes.
    • The echoes answer back as they bounce off the mountains (just as these last lines "echo" the final two lines of stanzas 1 and 2) and then die away.