“The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
The poem tells the story of a brigade consisting of 600 soldiers who rode on horseback into the “valley of death” for about one and a half miles. The soldiers were obeying a command to charge the enemy forces that had been seizing their guns.
Not a single soldier was discouraged or distressed by the command to charge forward, even though all the soldiers realized that their commander had made a terrible mistake: “Someone had blundered.” The role of the soldier is to obey and “not to make a reply…not to reason why,” so they followed orders and rode into the “valley of death.”
The 600 soldiers were attacked violently by the shots of shells of canons in front and on both sides of them. Still, they rode courageously forward toward their own deaths: “Into the jaws of Death / Into the mouth of hell / Rode the six hundred.”
The soldiers struck the enemy gunners with their bare swords and charged at the enemy army while the rest of the world looked on in wonder. They rode into the artillery smoke and broke through the enemy line, destroying their Cossack and Russian opponents.
Then they rode back from the offensive, but they had lost many men so they were “not the six hundred” any more. Canons behind and on both sides of the soldiers now attacked them with shots and shells. As the brigade rode “back from the mouth of hell,” soldiers and horses collapsed; few remained to make the backward journey. The world marvelled at the courage of the soldiers; indeed, their glory is undying: the poem states these noble 600 men remain worthy of honour and tribute today.
This poem comprises six stanzas varying in length from six to twelve lines. Each line has two stressed syllables; moreover, each stressed syllable is followed by two unstressed syllables, making the rhythm dactylic. The use of “falling” rhythm, in which the stress is on the first beat of each metrical unit, and then “falls off” for the rest of the length of the meter, is appropriate in a poem describing the fall of the British brigade.
The rhyme scheme varies with each stanza. Often, Tennyson uses the same rhyme (and occasionally even the same final word) for several consecutive lines: “Flashed all their sabres bare / Flashed as they turned in air / Sab’ring the gunners there.” The poem also makes use of anaphora, in which the same word is repeated at the beginning of several consecutive lines: “Cannon to right of them / Cannon to left of them / Cannon in front of them.” Here the method creates a sense of harsh and intense attack; at each line, our eyes meet the word “cannon,” just as the soldiers meet their flying shells at each turn.
This poem is effective largely because of the way it conveys the movement and sound of the charge via a strong, repetitive falling meter: “Half a league, half a league / Half a league onward.” The plodding pace of the repetitions seems to subsume all individual impulsiveness in ponderous collective action. The poem does not speak of individual troops but rather of “the six hundred” and then “all that was left of them.” Even Lord Raglan, who played such an important role in the battle, is only vaguely referred to in the line “someone had blundered.” Interestingly, Tennyson omitted this critical and somewhat subversive line in the 1855 version of this poem, but the writer John Ruskin later convinced him to restore it for the sake of the poem’s artistry. Although it underwent several revisions following its initial publication in 1854, the poem as it stands today is a moving tribute to courage and heroism in the face of a devastating defeat.
“The Charge of the Light Brigade” recalls a disastrous historical military engagement that took place during the initial phase of the Crimean War fought between Turkey and Russia (1854-56). Under the command of Lord Raglan, British forces entered the war in September 1854 to prevent the Russians from obtaining control of the important sea routes through the Dardanelles. From the beginning, the war was plagued by a series of misunderstandings and tactical blunders, one of which serves as the subject of this poem: on October 25, 1854, as the Russians were seizing guns from British soldiers, Lord Raglan sent desperate orders to his Light Cavalry Brigade to fend off the Russians. Finally, one of his orders was acted upon, and the brigade began charging—but in the wrong direction! Over 650 men rushed forward, and well over 100 died within the next few minutes. As a result of the battle, Britain lost possession of the majority of its forward defences and the only metalled road in the area.
In the 21st century, the British involvement in the Crimean War is dismissed as an instance of military incompetence; we remember it only for the heroism displayed in it by Florence Nightingale, the famous nurse. However, for Tennyson and most of his contemporaries, the war seemed necessary and just. He wrote this poem as a celebration of the heroic soldiers in the Light Brigade who fell in service to their commander and their cause. The poem glorifies war and courage, even in cases of complete inefficiency and waste.
Unlike the deeply personal grief of ‘Tears Idle Tears,’ this poem deals with an important political development in Tennyson’s day. As such, it is the part of a sequence of political and military poems that Tennyson wrote after he became the Poet Laureate of England in 1850, including “Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington” (1852) and “Riflemen, Form” (1859). These poems reflect Tennyson’s emerging national consciousness and his sense of compulsion to express his political views.
In his poem “Charge of the Light Brigade” Tennyson describes the valiant charge of the light brigade into the “jaws of death.” He makes use of repetition, allusion, and personification to paint a vivid picture of the charge, and, at the same time, he gives the reader a glimpse into the psyche of the valiant soldiers.
The literary device Tennyson most commonly employs in this poem is repetition, but he also makes use of allusion and personification. In the first stanza, he repeats the phrase “half a league” three times in order to convey the arduousness of the charge. It relates the fact that each league gained was a separate feat for the brigade. In the fist stanza, he also begins the repetition of “rode the six hundred,” a phrase which emphasizes the small number of valiant soldiers riding against the “mouth of hell” itself. Tennyson also includes the first reference to the “valley of Death” in the first stanza. This reference is continued throughout the poem. It functions as an allusion to the “valley of the shadow of death” in the twenty-third Psalm of the Bible and describes the charge. The allusion to the twenty-third Psalm serves to instil in the reader the sense of fearlessness that the brigade has because the psalm speaks of how evil is not to be feared, not even in the shadow of death itself. The reference to the valley also paints in the reader’s mind an image of being enclosed by greater things on all sides, a feeling no doubt shared by the soldiers. “Canon to the right of them,/ Cannon to the left of them,/ Cannon in front of them” is another repeated phrase in the poem that is found in the third and fifth stanzas of the poem. The repetition of the phrase serves to add to the claustrophobic feeling in the reader that began with the mention of the charge into the valley. It also reminds the reader that the cannon of the enemy are all that can be seen no matter where the valiant soldiers look. Death also becomes personified in the third stanza when Tennyson gives it jaws. The personification of death is meant to shift the poem’s tone to a more carnal tone. The brigade is now pitted against the ultimate beast that threatens devour them. They must now kill or be killed. The “jaws of death” and “mouth of hell” are also repeated images in the poem. They paint a picture of soldiers starring into a black abyss that is about to consume them.
In his poem, Tennyson also provides the reader with some insight into the psyche of the men of the brigade. The first glimpse of the soldiers’ state of mind given in the poem comes in the form of the valley of death. The reader is told that the soldiers face certain death, but the phrase, through its biblical allusion, demonstrates to the reader that the evil is face without fear. Tennyson also gives a more direct insight into the psyche of the brigade when he writes that the soldiers knew “Someone had blunder’d,” and that they knew their place was not to question orders but “to do and die.” The reader then knows that these men are blindly motivated by loyalty and a sense of duty. “Cannon to the right of them,/ Cannon to the left of them,/ Cannon in front of them” is another description Tennyson uses to take the reader into minds of soldiers. This description allows the reader to see the battle as the soldier saw it. No matter where you looked, all that could be seen was certain death. No safety could be found. After being taken into the psyche of the brigade and seeing a vivid picture of the valiant charge the reader cannot hope to do anything but admire the valour of the soldiers and “Honour the Light Brigade.”
Tennyson’s use of literary devices to paint a mental picture of a heroic charge and the insight he gives the reader into the minds of the valiant men who made it make his “Charge of the Light Brigade” a powerful poem. It is a fitting tribute to the soldiers who fought the war that elicited the world’s highest military honour: the Victoria Cross.
It has already been mentioned in the previous section that Tennyson is a defining poet of the Victorian era, nowhere more so than in his famous Archive-featured poem ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ (1864) which commemorates an infamous incident from the Crimean War. In the course of this action, undertaken in error due to misinterpreted orders, the Light Brigade attempted to capture the Russian gun redoubts at Balaclava with disastrous results. Of the six hundred and seventy-three men who charged down “The Valley of Death,” only a hundred and ninety-five survived unwounded. News of the charge and its bloody consequences reached London three weeks later and there was an immediate public outcry. The news affected Tennyson who wrote his poem in commemoration of their courage only a few minutes after reading an account in The Times. It was immediately popular, even reaching the troops back in the Crimea where it was distributed in pamphlet form.
Less well-known is Tennyson’s celebration of a more successful action during the same battle, ‘The Charge of the Heavy Brigade’. This was written much later in 1882 at the prompting of a friend which is perhaps why it fails to capture the creative burst of the first poem. The “three hundred” mentioned are the men of the Heavy Brigade and their commander, Sir James Yorke Scarlett, but the poem never caught the public’s imagination. Nevertheless, it is of historical interest to hear the two poems side by side which we’re able to do thanks to a remarkable recording made in 1890. These poems and eight others were recorded on a set of twenty-three soft wax cylinders. Although their age and the primitive technology sometimes renders a word inaudible, Tennyson’s voice comes through clearly, intoning the pounding dactylic rhythms of the verse which gives it a breathless momentum. The patriotic poem ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ published in MAUD (1855), is one of Tennyson’s best-known works, although first Maud was found obscure or morbid by critics ranging from George Eliot to Gladstone. Later the poem about the Light Brigade inspired Michael Curtiz’s film from1936, starring Errol Flynn. Historically the fight during the Crimean war brought to light the incompetent organization of the English army. However, the stupid mistake described in the poem honoured the soldier’s courage and heroic action.
Questions and Answers
1.Which of the following historical events do “The Charge of the Light Brigade” describe?
(i) D- Day
(ii) The Battle of Waterloo
(iii)The Battle of Bull Run
(iv) The Crimean War
Answer: (iv) The Crimean War
2.Why is the cavalry referred to as ‘light brigade’?
Answer: The cavalry is referred to as ‘light brigade’ because the cavalry was bearing only light arms- swords and sabres.
3.What is onomatopoeia? Can you find an example of onomatopoeia in the fourth stanza?
Answer: Onomatopoeia is a device applied to a word, or a combination of words, whose sound seems to resemble the sound it denotes; ’hiss’, ‘thud’, ‘buzz’ are some common examples. The seeming similarity of the verbal sounds to the nonverbal ones is due to the meaning and to the feel of uttering the words. In the fourth stanza, the word “flash’d” imitates the sound of a sabre, or sword, being pulled from its scabbard, or whistling through the air.
4.What is an alliteration? Point out the use of alliteration in the fourth stanza?
Answer: Alliteration is the repetition of the first consonant sound in a phrase or a sentence. The matching or repetition of these sounds create a special effect…..from the sabre stroke/ Shatter’d and sunder’d is an example of alliteration.
5. How does Tennyson make use of repetition in this poem?
Answer: Tennyson uses the same lines to open both stanzas three and stanza five:
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell
He repeats these lines, particularly the word “cannon” to create a special effect of the warfare being conducted by the light cavalry. The rhythmic use of these words successfully capture the action of the war.
1. Why do you suppose Tennyson has repeated canon at the beginning six lines (stanzas three and five)?
By beginning the line with “canons,” Tennyson creates a sense of unrelenting assault. Every line greets the reader’s eyes with canons just as the soldiers were greeted on the fields.
2. Find and record an example of an allusion within the first stanza.
The allusion in the first stanza is found on line three, and repeated on line seven, where the speaker uses the phrase “valley of Death.” This is an allusion to Psalm 23 in the Bible, where the poet says, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death, thou art with me.” It is not a reference to hell, but rather a reference to the time between death and one’s ascent to heaven or descent to hell.
3. What is the speaker’s outlook on war?
The poem seems to glorify war and the courage that seems to accompany it.
4. In the poem’s last stanza, the speaker asks, “When can their glory fade?” By writing the poem, Tennyson seems to be trying to ensure that it never does. What is the term for a question asked that is not mean to be answered?
The question is a rhetorical one.
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