The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487

“The Splendor Falls” was written in 1848 shortly after Alfred, Lord Tennyson visited Killarney in Ireland. The poem describes a sunset in mountainous country. The scene is glorious: The setting sun illuminates an old castle and the snow-capped peaks beyond. The surface of a nearby lake reflects the light, as does a waterfall seen tumbling from a cliff. In the scene, too, is a “scar,” or cleft in the rock face, from which the echoes of sounds emerge, first strongly, then with decreasing intensity.

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Celebrating the joy of the scene, the speaker calls for bugles to blow, so that the echoes may set off a clarion call heralding the wonders of the day’s end. There is a magical quality about the scene, suggested by the castle and the mountains “old in story,” and further emphasized by a reference to the “horns of Elfland,” a fairy kingdom. Highly romanticized, the sunset scene evokes moods of elation, wonder, and even excitement. In the final stanza, the speaker says to an unidentified listener—clearly his own beloved—that, unlike the echoes from the fissure along the cliff wall, the echoes of their love will not diminish.

The poem succeeds on its own merits as a lyric by creating a mood and evoking powerful emotions in readers. However, its initial publication as one of the songs interspersed into a longer blank-verse narrative warrants some attention. In 1847, Tennyson published The Princess, a story focused on women’s rights, women’s education, and the proper relation between the sexes. The tale of Princess Ida, who many centuries earlier had abandoned the world of men to establish a college for women, is not told in a straightforward manner. Instead, Tennyson begins in the present time by creating a party of young men and women who are asked to invent a story in which each of the seven members of the group would tell one part, building on what others have said before them.

The resulting medley of Ida’s love affair with the Prince, framed by an introduction and conclusion in which the poet narrates the stories of the modern young men and women who invent her character, met with mixed success. Readers of the 1847 edition complained that the disparate stories did not coalesce well into a single tale, so Tennyson decided to include songs between each part to link the sections thematically. “The Splendor Falls” appears between the third and fourth sections of the poem, shortly after the Prince has invaded the walls of Princess Ida’s college and won her love. The third part of The Princess ends with a scene in which the Prince, Princess Ida, and their friends have just completed an amateur geological trek through mountainous terrain, having quit to observe sunset in the region. Hence, within the longer poem, the lyric is used to echo both a sense of the scenery and the mood of the young lovers.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 486

“The Splendor Falls” is a deceptively simple lyric. At first glance the poem appears highly structured. It consists of three stanzas, each containing a quatrain rhyming abab, followed by a rhyming couplet. Each line of the quatrain appears to have four beats and generally follows the pattern of an iambic tetrameter. The couplet contains one five-beat line followed by a six-beat line.

Upon examination, however, it becomes clear that hardly any line in the poem consists exclusively of regular iambic feet. Where regular lines occur, Tennyson almost always follows them with a variation. For example, the opening line is a regular iambic tetrameter: “The splendor falls on castle walls.” The second, however, contains an extra syllable, because of the feminine rhyme: “And snowy summits old in story.” The next two lines are both irregular: “The long light shakes across the lakes,/ And the wild cataract leaps in glory.” In the first of these lines, the words “long light shakes” all require a stress; in the second, two unstressed syllables precede two that require a stress. Readers will find this pattern repeated throughout the poem. The effect is that the individual lines strive to destroy the exceptionally tight structure created by the rhyme scheme and the stanzaic pattern of the lyric.

Tennyson uses the highly structured stanza pattern and rhyme scheme as but one means of creating a sense of regularity against which the metric variations seem to be in conflict. The couplets at the end of each stanza are essentially the same. Only one variation occurs: Line 5 in the second stanza is altered from “Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying” of the first and third stanzas to “Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying.” The final lines of each stanza are identical, suggesting the action of the echoes described by the poet throughout the lyric.

The auditory and visual imagery of the poem creates a vivid experience of the close of the day. Readers can visualize the castle atop a cliff, beside which there runs a cleft in the mountain where echoes reverberate. The image of water sparkling in the sunset is captured in active verbs: The light reflecting on the lakes “shakes,” and the waterfall pouring from the side of the mountain “leaps in glory.” The repetition of key words and phrases, made most obvious in the final lines of each stanza, suggests a sense of continuance about the pattern of this natural event. The subtle irregularities, however, create the sensation that something extraordinary is taking place.

Sophisticated readers may find parallels to William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” in which the poet tells of “cataracts blow[ing] their trumpets from the steep,” and babes come into the world “trailing clouds of glory.” Like the soul in Wordsworth’s poem who achieves immortality through communing with nature, the lovers described briefly in “The Splendor Falls” can become immortal through their love.

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