Immortalizing War in Tennyson's "The Charge of The Light Brigade"
Matthew and Todd
Working as the United Kingdom’s Poet Laureate placed Lord Tennyson in a difficult position; he was under the employ of the government, and would have risked losing his title had he written on any state event in an unfavourable manner. Thus, Tennyson settled on creating a heroic recount of the battle, to capitalize upon the patriotism of his readers—as well as to commemorate one of the biggest follies of the Crimean War. Evidence of this is in the poem itself. The final stanza reads:
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred! (ll. 53-55)
Here, Tennyson uses repetition to emphasize the goals of his poem. In these final lines, Tennyson clearly wished to encapsulate the emotions he believed present during the "Charge". The stanza as quoted reads that we should honour the actions of the Light Brigade, which leads to the honouring of the Brigade itself for possessing the qualities that make them the "noble six hundred". Line 50 of the poem, the first line of the final stanza, reads "When can their glory fade?" not only catapulting the actions of the Brigade into the realm of the "glorious," but also invoking the idea that their heroic deeds will be remembered for eternity, never fading. This first stanza also makes the first mention of the valley as being the “valley of Death”. This is a fantastic use of foreshadowing, allowing the reader to consider the actions of the Brigade knowing they faced certain defeat.
But as the poem glorifies the actions of the Light Brigade, how accurate is the retelling when compared with historical facts? The matter is especially delicate as the poem was written little more than a month after the actual battle took place. The answer is that Tennyson’s work is surprisingly accurate. While the poem is not too intricate or full of detail, the account of the battle and the actions of the Light Brigade are correct—albeit romanticized to a degree. As the Crimean War was one of the first to be covered extensively by the media, aided by new and faster communications technologies, stories travelled quickly back to Britain. Combined with the fact that a so-called “gallery” of onlookers positioned up-land observed the Battle of Balaclava, this provided the media—and by extension Tennyson—with a detailed recounting of events.@ Forbes, Archibald. The Battle of Balaclava. Rep. Contemporary Review, 1891. C19: The 19th Century Index. Web. 2 Feb. 2011. <http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?url_ver=Z39.88 -2004&res_dat=xri:c19index-us&rft_dat=xri:c19index:PCI:0274-1891-059-00-000032>.
The iconic "Half a league onwards!" that Tennyson opens his poem with, is the first time we realize the accuracy of his writing. The measurement of a league varies wildly, owing to a league being defined as the distance a person or horse could walk in an hour. However, a league is generally known to be about three miles. The charge of the Light Brigade was approximately a mile and a half long through the valley, consistent with Tennyson's battle cry.
Furthermore, details of the events leading up to the charge itself also appear to be accurate. The sixth line of the first stanza reads “Charge for the guns’ he said,” alluding to the order given by army commander Lord Raglan that was infamously vague, and hence, misconstrued. Though the order to charge was incredibly puzzling and without much detail, the Light Brigade charged forwards.@Beck, Hamilton. "The Crimean War." The Victorian Web: An Overview. 16 Aug. 2005. Web. 01 Feb. 2011. <http://www.victorianweb.org/history/crimea/beck/2.html#alt>. Tennyson recreated this situation with the repetitious lines:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death (ll. 13-16)
Tennyson masterfully crafted these lines, using repetition to enforce the idea that their actions were their duty, regardless of the outcome. Their obedience to their superiors is here made noble—an unquestionable faith in their superior officers in the British Army.
The stanza that immediately follows alludes to the situation the Brigade faced when first entering the valley. Again, Tennyson makes use of repetition to make a point. Here, he repeats the positions of the cannons used against the brigade in quick order to provide the reader a sense of the situation. By repeating the word “cannon”, the reader is forced to face the sense of ambush—of being boxed in—that the Brigade felt when charging. Tennyson also makes use of powerful imagery, describing the cannon fire as “volley’d and thunder’d,” mentioning also that the Brigade was “storm’d at with shot and shell,” and relating the cannon fire to that of an oppressive thunderstorm.
This section of the third stanza is repeated at the beginning of the fifth stanza, nearing the end of the poem, reminding the reader of the brutal conditions with which the Brigade is faced. The fifth stanza is also the final stanza recounting the actions of the Light Brigade. Here is the first mention that the Light Brigade had incurred heavy losses, though the losses had been steady since the beginning of the battle.@Beck, Hamilton. "The Crimean War." The Victorian Web: An Overview. 16 Aug. 2005. Web. 01 Feb. 2011. <http://www.victorianweb.org/history/crimea/beck/2.html#alt>. This evokes in the reader the idea that the Light Brigade was triumphant and brave until they were finally overcome.
The final and arguably most important aspect of Tennyson’s poem is the end of each stanza, which references the “six hundred”. In poetry, the reader can easily get sucked into the situation being described to them; however with each stanza ending with a reminder of who the poem is about, the reader is forced to stay on track, remembering that the poem is entirely about the men and not the events. In this way, Tennyson’s motive remains entirely clear, and the men of the Light Brigade are immortalized through their actions, rather than their actions becoming immortalized instead. That is what makes Tennyson’s poem bold and brave; it is a memorial to the heroes lost on the battlefield, and who died admirably in the face of insurmountable adversity.