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Immortalizing War in Tennyson's "The Charge of The Light Brigade"

Matthew and Todd

William Holman Hunt
As any first-year English student will eagerly tell you, one of poetry’s most important functions is its ability to evoke an emotional response. In this respect, Lord Alfred Tennyson’s "The Charge of the Light Brigade"@ is a shining example. The poem is a well-known British classic, powerful in its imagery and structure, but necessarily so due to the social climate—a time of conflict—in which it was introduced.

The Crimean War, fought from 1853-1856@, involved both British and French military forces fighting against Russian expansionism for control of the Ottoman Empire. According to historian John R. Reed, the conflict marked the beginning of modern war correspondence, thanks to first-hand accounts and photographic images from the battlefield that were quickly published in weekly newspapers and periodicals. New inventions, such as the telegraph and railroad, helped accelerate the typical news cycle, bringing far away news to readers in a matter of days or weeks—not months.@

In fact, it is exactly these accounts that prompted Lord Alfred Tennyson, as Poet Laureate for the United Kingdom (from 1850-1892)@, to pen one of the most famous retellings of British involvement in the Crimean War to date. Responding to a newspaper account of the Battle of Balaclava—in which a misunderstood order, carried out bravely but foolishly, leads to glory for British troops—Tennyson published his poem, The Charge of The Light Brigade, in London's Examiner on December 9, 1854@.

However, the "unprecedented" level of media coverage also increased awareness of the perceived government blunder, so much so that it was credited as the reason the Aberdeen Ministry was voted out in the next election.@ In fact, the Crimean War was so notoriously unpopular with British citizens for the duration of the campaign that many treated news of the conflict—including Tennyson’s poem—with contempt.

Nevertheless, the effect of Tennyson’s poem was simple: it mythologized the event as an example of British bravery, heroism and bravado at a time when the war was largely unpopular with the country’s citizens. This effect, however, was not achieved by Tennyson’s written work alone. While Tennyson’s poem may have immortalized the atrocities of war and British heroism, the events as heard through the filter of the author’s voice—recorded on wax cylinder in 1890@, almost forty years after the poem’s initial publication—give listeners a markedly different perspective.