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Poem of the week: The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Tennyson


Not a protest, but in no way a celebration of a disastrous historical event, it remains a compelling dramatisation of battle

Once enormously popular and much-memorised, this week's poem, Alfred Tennyson's The Charge of the Light Brigade, was also vilified, according to JB Steane, as "horrid rubbish". It's a verdict Steane himself tentatively commends ("I think there might be something in it.") Even the poet seems to have found its popularity irritating. So how does it look from 2014? Great poem, good poem, bad poem, good bad poem?

It's certainly the kind of poem people love or hate for anything-but-literary reasons. The subject is an emotive one, centred on the timelessly appealing stereotype of heroic ordinary soldier versus incompetent high command (a theme which continued to grip the imagination of the poets of the first world war). Tennyson's poem is not, of course, a fantasy: it's a largely accurate account of an actual, and very dreadful, historical event which took place during the Battle of Balaclava. To its admirers, the poem's a tribute to the Light Brigade's selfless courage: to its attackers, it's the sentimental glorification of war and empire.

Written in response to a Times editorial, in which the author referred to "a hideous blunder" in the conduct of the battle, The Charge of the Light Brigade may signal a new journalistic genre of poetry, where, if the news can't be got from poems, poets can certainly get their poems from the news. But this is also poetry in the ancient costume of the ballad, re-tailored for new times by the Romantic poets a little earlier. The genre is an oral one, and it's significant that, before he wrote anything down, Tennyson sang the poem aloud as he walked over the chalk ridge near his home on the Isle of Wight. Back in his study he swiftly transcribed it, then sent it to the London Examiner, where it was published a week later, on 9 December 1854.

The Times article seems to have led Tennyson to the phrase, "Someone had blunder'd", and so to his perfectly-chosen metrical scheme – dactylic dimeter. "Blunder'd," though used only once, begets the rhyme with "the six hundred", main component of the poem's trenchant refrain. Tumultuous hoof-beats sound in these repetitions. It's as if one word had acted as an aural shortcut into Tennyson's whole imagination. The line, "Someone had blundered," almost casually inserted in verse two, is an understatement in the context, and all the more effective for it.

Since the poem soon became essential reading for the soldiers in the field, it seems that Tennyson's imagination stood the test of authenticity: at least, he had produced a story which drew assent. The poem is remarkable for the simplicity and dramatic immediacy of its description. The relentless pace of the cavalry as they gallop into "the mouth of Hell" is vividly rendered in the breathlessly short lines and thundering rhythms, whereas the return of the survivors brings a gasp of shocked recognition: "but not/ Not the six hundred".

Tennyson's poem doesn't contribute to the analysis of the "blunder" itself, though he might have found rich material in the psychology of the main players. I don't think it sets out to glorify war, but it's certainly not a protest. It recreates the sabre-flashing excitement of warfare, even in the ironical context of bare sabres against guns. There's a certain theatricality and exaggeration in the twice-repeated line, "All the world wonder'd". Skilful elision and brilliantly descriptive shorthand at times approach cliche. Yet its narrative grip and verve are beyond question. It's not a great poem, perhaps, but it is a great ballad.

Tennyson himself recites the poem on a wax-cylinder recording here. And, yes, the text has even been translated into Russian.

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:
Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why,
Their's 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.

Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
   All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel'd from the sabre-stroke
   Shatter'd and sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
   Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
   Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
   Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
   All the world wonder'd.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
   Noble six hundred!

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