Alfred Tennyson (1809 – 1892) was an English poet born in Lincolnshire. He was the son of a vicar and returned home from Cambridge to care for his mother and sisters after the death of his father in 1831.
Tennyson is known predominantly for his shorter lyric poems and often chose mythological or ancient stories as the basis for his poems. Some of his more famous poems include: ‘Claribel’, ‘Marianne’, ‘The Lady of Shallot’ and ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’.
In 1850, following the release of his longer poem, ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’, Tennyson was named Poet Laureate. This post required him to write on themes of national importance and he wrote about the Great Exhibition and the death of Wellington, as well as the Crimean War.
Alfred Tennyson was the first man to be raised to a peerage because of his writing, accepting a baronetcy in 1883. He was the Poet Laureate for most of Queen Victoria’s reign and his writing came to define Victorian poetry.
The poem deals with the historical events of a key battle in the Crimean War, in which the British fought against the Russians for territory in the Crimea (north Black Sea region, now part of Russia).
A ‘brigade’ is a small section of an army and it is called a ‘Light Brigade’ in the poem because it describes cavalry soldiers (riding horses) who are only lightly armoured and armed.
The poem was written by Alfred Tennyson in 1854 when he was Poet Laureate of Britain. It is a tribute to the British soldiers of the Light Brigade who died in the hopeless attack against a battery of Russian guns.
Ideas and Language
‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ is written in the third person. It relates a dramatic version of events of a key battle in the Crimean War. The events had been reported in the press six weeks before Tennyson’s version appeared. On 25th of October, 1854 a lightly armoured cavalry unit received a garbled message to attack the Russian forces. Although they knew they were doomed, as the Russians had guns against the cavalry’s sabres (a type of sword), the brigade did as they had been told and attacked. Of the 666 men who took part in this charge, 271 were casualties (injured, captured or killed).
The misunderstanding in the commands is mentioned in the second stanza but only briefly. The soldiers only know that it is their duty to ‘do and die’. The field of battle is referred to as ‘the valley of Death’, referencing Psalm 23 of the Bible. This gives the battle a solemn but almost religious tone. The sounds and actions of the battle are related in a series of strong verbs. The cannon ‘volley’d and thunder’d’ and the men were ‘storm’d at’ with shot. The sibilance here reminds us of the sounds of the bullets flying through the air while these men only had sabres to advance with. Their advance is portrayed as brave and noble.
The valley is described in terms of monsters with ‘the jaws of Death’ and the ‘mouth of Hell’. The men reach the opposing forces and are ‘sabring’ and ‘charging’ and ‘plunged in the battery-smoke’. Even though they are so few, the enemy ‘Reel’d from the sabre stroke’ showing that the British forces fought well and were aggressive attackers. While the battle is relayed here to the reader, it is second hand and heavily edited. The poet focuses on how heroic the soldiers were and, at the end of the poem, asks that we ‘honour the charge they made’ and consider ‘when can their glory fade?’ He clearly wishes us to see the sacrifice the soldiers made as a noble one.
The poem is a story, told through a third person narrator (the poet) who tells the story of the charge in a chronological order. The first three stanzas reflect on the charge of the men, the fourth on the battle itself and the fifth describes the aftermath. The final stanza gives Tennyson the opportunity to reflect on the charge and the bravery of the men.
The regular rhythm of the poem sets up a sense of the galloping of the horses. The fast pace reflects the speed of the advance and the battle’s energy – it was all over in 20 minutes! While there are both rhyming couplets and triplets in the poem, there are also times when the rhythm is lost, perhaps reflecting the falling of the soldiers or the futile nature of their endeavour.
Repetition throughout the poem again reproduces the thundering of horses’ hooves and may represent the inevitability of the final results of the charge. There is a relentlessness to the words. The final ‘honour the’ phrase that is repeated reminds the reader what they should do now.
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