A lot of poetry by Lord Tennyson is hard to read these days, turgid narrative verse of more than usually cloying Victorian sentimentality, and one such is his long poem The Princess; A Medley, published in 1850. But within it are contained two of his most exquisite and memorable gems, poems within the poem.

One is the languorous and sensuous "Now sleeps the crimson petal", and the other is the cool and heart-troubling "The splendour falls on castle walls", also sometimes known as "Blow, bugle, blow", though it has no proper title within The Princess.

    The splendour falls on castle walls
      And snowy summits old in story:
    The long light shakes across the lakes,
      And the wild cataract leaps in glory.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

    O hark, O hear! how thin and clear,
      And thinner, clearer, farther going!
    O sweet and far from cliff and scar
      The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!
Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying:
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

    O love, they die in yon rich sky,
      They faint on hill or field or river:
    Our echoes roll from soul to soul,
      And grow for ever and for ever.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
And answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.

This really draws me in, it touches me with the horns of Elfland; I sense the elfish warriors and princesses on a scar of a misty glen.

Several composers have set this to music, most notably Benjamin Britten and Frederick Delius. Britten's haunting setting really does suit the reedy, faraway voice of Peter Pears. He gave it the title Nocturne and made it one of the movements of his Serenade for tenor, horn and strings number 2, opus 31. He made a couple of changes to the words: the long night shakes across the lakes, and the last line of each stanza began with "Bugle, blow". Delius set only the first two verses.

Part of JudyT's Golden Jubilee celebration of Britain.

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