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Truth and Fiction: the Art and Poetry of the Crimean War


    A work of art, in its entirety, can stretch beyond the original canvas. The unique brand of art and poetry that arose out of the Crimean War, for instance, was defined by shifting perspectives and an ongoing dialogue between mediums. Thanks to technological advancements, Great Britain was in the midst of a major cultural flux, abandoning Romantic depictions of battle in pursuit of its painful, ugly realities. Thus, this exhibit will decipher Lord Tennyson's poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,”@ through its relationship to two visual artifacts: Roger Fenton's photograph “The Valley of the Shadow of Death”@ and Punch magazine's political cartoon “The Reason Why.”@ Each assumes a unique vantage point on the same pivotal moment, the Crimean War's Battle of Balaclava. However, it is only through cross-comparison that one truly grasps how the social and political landscape of a nation has a direct influence on the development of its culture.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!" he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Some one had blunder'd.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.

Alfred Tennyson

    At first reading, Tennyson's poem could be interpreted as a rallying battle cry, a patriotic declaration of support for an empire that had come under sharp public criticism. Indeed, contemporaries of Tennyson, such as Gladstone and Goldwin Smith, derided the poet's “stodgy,” political views.@ The Charge of the Light Brigade, in particular, was criticized for its apparent “war-mongering” spirit.@ However, a closer reading of the text reveals that it is not the British empire the poet glorifies, but "the spirit of the common soldier," an important distinction that reflects a larger trend towards realism.

    In many ways, realism was a product of the emerging middle class. Prior to the industrial revolution, art belonged solely to the aristocratic elite, who not only dictated the subject matter but the viewing experience. However, with the popularization of newspapers and magazines, artistic dialogue was removed from galleries and private collections and re-framed in the living room of the ordinary citizen. This shift in power was accompanied by a rise in anti-aristocratic sentiment. During the Crimean War, for instance, top positions in the British army were treated as mere titles, to be “bought” by wealthy aristocrats, rather than earned by merit.@ This purchase system”was sharply criticized, particularly during the disastrous Battle of Balaclava. Due to a communication error in the chain of command, more than 700 cavalrymen were ordered to charge into heavy artillery. “Within minutes” over a hundred were dead. The catastrophe was heavily reported in the British media and sparked a new interest in the “ordinary hero.” Common soldiers, previously shunned as “near-criminal,”@ became the favoured subject of paintings, while the depiction of “high-born” military commanders faded into obscurity. Tennyson echoes this trend by placing the experience of the anonymous soldier at the forefront. By contrast, the commander of the troops is left unnamed, referenced only in a single line: “Some one had blundered.”

    Still, the poem has more than a touch of romance. As literary critic F.J. Sypher points out, the idea of glory in death, despite its futility, is a common theme throughout Tennyson's work.@

Sypher, F. J. "Politics in the Poetry of Tennyson." Victorian Poetry 14.2 (1976): 101-12. Print

On a collective scale, for instance, the doomed cavalry echoes the tragic end of the heroine in the Lady of Shallot. Like the Lady, the troops decision to “ride out” to certain death is met with a mixture of horror and awe. It is as though, in an effort to understand something beyond comprehension, Tennyson must elevate the human catastrophe of war to the status of the mystical. Sypher also argues that the poet faced an artistic dilemma: how to venture forth from myth and fantasy into the realm of reality.@ Perhaps it was personal feelings of vulnerability that pushed Tennyson to publish the poem anonymously, under the initials “A.T.” Either way, the poem is a distinct departure from Tennyson's previous work. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” turns the reader's eye outward, signalling the author's emerging national and political consciousness. Much of this shift is thanks to the growing influence of technology.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death
Roger Fenton, The Examiner

    With the birth of photography, capturing reality, in its purest form, seemed possible as never before. Along with the telegraph, the invention of photography enabled the masses to access information at rapid-fire speed. No longer encumbered by the lengthy lag times of traditional post, journalists could relay battle events to the British public, almost as they unfolded. Against this backdrop emerged “the first iconic war photograph.”@ When Roger Fenton's “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” was published in The Illustrated London News, it caused an instant sensation. Devoid of carnage or casualties, rather it is the suggestion of death that lends the image its power. The deserted enclave, muddied ground thick with canon ball shot and the faded footprints of doomed guardsmen, echoes with the ravages of war and “desolation of the human soul.”@

    However, the cameraman still presents an "edited reality," choosing who and what captures his photographic eye, while that which falls outside the frame is rendered obsolete.@ Mid-19th century photographers faced still greater challenges. Subjects had to remain motionless for several minutes while the images “set” on light sensitive plates. Thus, subject matter was limited to the aftermath of war, deserted battlefields or the bedridden wounded, for example. Art and poetry, on the other hand, could fill this void, capturing the heat of the action through the stroke of a paintbrush or roll of a tongue. In Tennyson's poem, for instance, the constant repetition of words mimics the relentless barrage of cannon-fire: “Cannon to right of them/ Cannon to left of them/ Cannon in front of them/ Volley'd and thunder'd.” The structure of the poem, split into two three-part stanza's mimics the “charge and retreat.” Even the rhythm, written in dactylic metre, echoes the galloping of horses, “falling” from one stressed syllable to two unstressed. In this way, decades before the invention of the wax cylinder phonograph, poets like Tennyson were able to evoke the sights and sounds of war.

Roger Fenton's assistant Marcus Sparling
Seated in Fenton's mobile photography van, before entering "The Valley of The Shadow of Death"

    It is important to note that artists and poets like Tennyson were included in the popular readership. For instance, British newspapers initially reported that 607 cavalrymen rode in the Battle of Balaclava, rather than the actual number of 700. Even after Tennyson learned of the error in latter reports, he opted to keep the original line because “six is much better than seven hundred... metrically.”@ While the poet's decision to publish false information opens up a larger debate over the merits of aesthetics versus accuracy, it also raises another important question; one regarding the idea of a stable reality in an ever-changing world. With the rise of multimedia technology, Victorian society became increasingly information-driven, interconnected and, in some ways, transient. As a result, separating truth from fiction became more problematic. Tennyson speaks to the growing influence of the periodic press in his poem: “All the world wondered.” In addition, the following lines, “Into the valley of Death/Rode the six hundred,” are a direct reference to the title of Fenton's photograph, as it appeared in the Examiner. The title of the photograph, in turn, was likely inspired by the following psalm from the Old Testament: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death/ I will fear no evil, for you are with me...” (Psalm 23:4). Thus, one becomes aware of an ongoing cross-chatter between mediums. Holding up a mirror to another mirror evokes the same effect; rather than a single image, the reflection contains an infinite volleying chasm, a copy of a copy of a copy.

John Leech, "The Reason Why"
Punch magazine (1855)

    For further evidence of this inter-relationship, one turns to Punch magazine. The satirical comic, "The Reason Why," by artist John Leech is a prime example of how Tennyson's poetry both shapes and was shaped by the popular media. In Leech's political cartoon, an aristocratic officer dressed as a housekeeper shoos away the “mess” left behind by the disaster at Balaclava. Meanwhile, a government official gazes on with furrowed brow, looking very much like a stern headmaster chiding a naughty schoolboy. The poetic reference, “There's not to reason why,/ There's but to do and die,” is a testament to The Charge of the Light Brigade's iconic status. However, the magazine's cheeky take on Tennyson also shows how one can re-appropriate and reshape popular art, including poetry, to give it new meaning. Leech implies that glory in death alone is not a sufficient explanation. The people of Great Britain demanded answers and for those responsible to be held accountable.@

As a direct result of public outcry over the mishandling of the Crimean War, the British government ended the purchase system in 1871, opting instead for a merit system “open to all.” The “Cardwell reforms” included: shorter service terms, more promotions, higher wages and better overall living conditions for the soldiers.

    As a whole, the magazine quite literally “re-frames” Tennyson's poetry within the context of the times. This particular issue of Punch, for instance, also contains the following scathing editorial, criticizing the military fiasco at Balaclava: “That an old dowager, with money and influence, ought to be able to buy her hobledehoys into the most respectable positions in the British army... the argument was worthy of hearers who did not instantly laugh it down.” There are other insights into the public mood. An announcement that Queen Victoria would be visiting wounded soldiers at Windsor, for instance, appears on a corresponding page.@

Although aristocratic officers were heavily criticized for the mismanagement of the Crimean War, the Queen herself became a symbol of new-found empathy for the plight of wounded soldiers. In fact, according to Lalumia, Queen Victoria herself commissioned a series of photographs of patients at a military hospital in Brompton. The moving images, captured by journalists Joseph Cundall and Robert Howlett, appeared in The Illustrated London News in 1855.

Furthermore, immediately below, one finds an advertisement for admiralty medics: “Wanted: Assistant Surgeons. Upwards of 60 vacancies.” Thus, the pages of the magazine becomes like the folds of a map, an invaluable tool for navigating the complex realities of a pivotal moment in history.

Punch magazine cover (Jan. 1855)

    In conclusion, the relationship between this triad of artists – poet, photographer and cartoonist – shows how a single historic event can be dissected through the prism of subjective experience. Only by comparing all three does one fully grasp the High Victorian era's underlying themes of chaos and disillusion. In this way, not only Tennyson's poem, but larger ideas of truth and fiction are exposed as complex, multivariate and, most importantly, ever-evolving.