"The Charge of the Light Brigade" - Honour and Glory in War? (Tennyson Poem Analysis)
'The Charge of the Light Brigade' concerns an event of the Crimean War (1854-56), which occurred during the year that the war broke out ~ 1854. At this time, Alfred Tennyson was poet laureate and, as such, was the mouthpiece, via poetry, of the British establishment. This poem would, therefore, have to follow the official state line and, if he does, indeed, present a 'glorified view', then this might even be considered state propaganda.
Tennyson's poem was an almost immediate reaction to a 'Times' article, by W H Russell, which described the Light Brigade's charge, through a valley, towards heavily armed Russian troops, with 'cannon to the right of them, cannon to the left of them, cannon to the front of them'. Their commander had mistaken his orders and his blunder caused them to ride ~ heroically ~ to their deaths.
This poem is just one example of a huge range of poetry, prose and drama concerning war. Some is contemporary, often written by the soldiers, themselves; some has been written after the event, with knowledge of opinions that have been expressed over the years. Most of it can be divided into two groups; pro-war sentimentalism or jingoism and anti-war realism.
Tennyson's item is a thundering piece of verse. The metre ~ dactylic dimeter ~ echoes the galloping of the horses. It is rousing and exciting to the ear. It was Wordsworth who indicated that someone reading or listening to a poem might be distracted by its rhyme and rhythm, which almost form a barrier to the words, so that the reader does not immediately register their meaning. This appears to be what is happening when one hears this poem. It has an exciting, enjoyable fun-filled sound, which belies some of its content.
Tennyson Book 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'
Death and Other Effects of Battle?
With the exception of 'death' itself, Tennyson gives his readers very little overt information on the effects of battle on soldiers. In 'The Charge of the Light Brigade', Tennyson describes battle, itself, rather than the effects thereof. It gives his 'poetic license' version of real events ~ where nearly 600 men died. Death or defeat are the only results ~ or effects ~ of this skirmish. However, the reader / listener might conclude that those who died probably suffered; that they may have felt fear and pain as a result of the events surrounding them. One might infer that the survivors may have suffered physical injury as a result of being 'stormed at by shot and shell' or of having horses fall on or under them. Perhaps they were deafened by the cannon that 'volleyed and thundered' or had their eyes and lungs affected by 'the battery smoke'.
Tennyson leaves his reading audience to imagine the mental and emotional effects of battle, but clues are given, when he likens the brigade's ride to battle as a journey into the 'valley of Death'. This Biblical phrase occurs twice in the first stanza and is repeated in verse two. 'Death' is given a capital 'D'. In verse three, where Tennyson describes those who remained alive and rode back, the terminology is changed slightly. This time it states that they rode 'into the jaws of Death and 'into the mouth of Hell' and these phrases are repeated in verse 4. Again the initial letter of 'death' is capitalised, as is the 'H' of 'hell. This is for impact. This subtly tells the reader how awful the event had been for those involved and indicates how their emotions might have been affected ~ for these men, living and dead, had experienced the horrors of hell.
Tennyson does indicate the effect that this story should have on its audience ~ the civilians back home. They should 'wonder' at this charge and should 'honour' those taking part. The word 'honour' is emphasized by being used twice in the final verse ~ once with an exclamation mark ~ and it is accompanied by the words ‘glory' and 'noble'. There are no horrific descriptions of death and suffering, so the reader is left to revere and respect the six hundred, rather than empathising or sympathising with them.
A Glorified View?
Does it give a glorified view of war?
The thumping, rhythmic temp, echoing the galloping hooves of the chargers, is alluring and has made this poem a great favourite over the years. The metre is also reminiscent of drum beat. The beat of the drum was ~ and still is ~ used by military forces to increase the morale of troops and to encourage new recruits to join. (This is illustrated in Le Gallienne's poem; 'The Illusion of War', which described how attractive the sound of the beating drum might be to young men ~ potential soldiers. It is also satirised in the Littlewood play / Attenborough film 'Oh What a Lovely War'.) The exciting story of the charge, coupled with the attractive rousing beat and the talk of heroism and nobility does appear to give a glorified view. The last stanza, in particular, asks 'when can their glory fade? and commands 'honour the Light Brigade'. It is theatrical and emotional. However, there are contradictions. The poem describes death and defeat. Indeed, Tennyson probably indicates that more men died than expired in reality. For a poem that glorified war, it was strange that Tennyson should ask; 'Was there a man dismayed?' and to announce that 'someone had blundered', drawing to public attention the fact that the brigade's commander had sent these brave young men into 'the valley of death' by mistake, and without even the right or opportunity to 'make reply' or 'to reason why'. They had no choice 'but to do and die' ~ and die they did.
First impressions are of glory, excitement and heroism, but the underlying message, possibly unheard, is of pointless death, caused by erroneous and fatal stupidity, and an inability to question orders.
As poet laureate, during war-time, it would have been unwise for Tennyson, the voice of the establishment, to have been any more open about his criticisms. It might have caused problems at home, and with the troops, if this historic event had been acknowledged for the catastrophic mistake that it really was; it might even have been considered treason.
When the reader of 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' hears the battle described thus: 'Stormed at with shot and shell, while horse and hero fell', he still envisions the galloping horses, carrying their noble riders. His mind does not immediately register that the shot soldier has fallen. The thundering rhythm has affected the reader's ability to take this in, clearly.
The poem describes the fate of six hundred men. The reader learns nothing of them as individuals. A few wounded men survived the charge, but most were killed. We do not know their names, or how they felt. ... anonymous victims, .. 'the six hundred'.
For the soldiers of the first world war, 'theirs' was 'not to reason why' any more than it was for the Light Brigade. 'Theirs' was still 'to do and die'; following orders, like sheep, without question and without the liberty to question.
Tennyson's soldiers are bold, heroic, glorious, honourable, noble and dead.
Does Tennyson present a 'glorified view' of battle?
Certainly he has written a rousing poem, with a hypnotic beat, which echoes galloping hooves and beating drums. In the film 'Oh what a lovely war', and in war poems such as Le Gallienne's 'The Illusion of War', the rousing music of fife and drum lured young men into the army. The beat of hooves and drums told of the excitement of battle, but not of the suffering. However, like the authors of the latter two works, Tennyson does inform his reader of death and suffering. It may lie somewhat hidden behind metre and rhyme, but it is there. The Biblical shadow of the 'valley of death' is recalled a number of times ~ twice in the first verse!
It is not glorious to speak of an officer's blunder, which led his men into the 'jaws of death'. It is not glorious to speak of 'six hundred' riding into the valley, but 'not' riding back, because 'horse and hero fell'. Tennyson speaks of honouring them. They were noble, brave and heroic, as they rode to their deaths, and his poem indicates that this should be honoured.
The charge must have been a glorious sight, for Marshal Pierre Bosquet allegedly said 'C'est magnifique!' The poem may reflect that glory, as was fitting for the poet laureate's work, but his misgivings about the men's unnecessary deaths, because 'someone had blundered' is clear. They were fodder, as were the many privates of the First World War, who followed orders 'like a little lamb'.
The ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ is a poem, set in the 19th century, in the Crimean peninsula. It was written by a highly-educated male member of the establishment about a true event ~ though Tennyson exaggerates the number of deaths.
From the sound of its galloping horses, and the sight of its sabre-wielding heroes, one might say 'yes, this glorifies war', but if one studies the words closely, without allowing the beat to form a barrier to the emotions, one can recognise anger ~ at so many deaths that were caused by a mistake.
The men are honoured for their bravery, but for almost six hundred men to thunder to their hellish deaths is not glorious.