Charge Of The Light Brigade Poem Essays

Six hundred men in the Light Brigade ride through the valley, pushing half a league ahead. Their leader called them to charge for the enemy’s guns. It was a death mission; someone had made a mistake. But the men simply obey; “Theirs not to make reply, / Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die.”

They are surrounded by cannons, but the six hundred men ride on with courage into “the jaws of Death,” the “mouth of Hell.” They flash their sabers and slash at the gunners, six hundred men charging an entire army while the rest of the world wonders at their deeds. They plunge right through the smoke and through the battle line, forcing the Cossacks and Russians back.

Having accomplished what they could, they return through more cannon fire, and many more heroes and horses die. They have come through the jaws of Death and mouth of Hell, those who are left of the six hundred.

The speaker wonders whether their glory will ever fade due to their heroic charge; the whole world marvels at them and honors the “noble six hundred” of the Light Brigade.

Analysis

As the poet laureate of England, Tennyson published this heroic and rousing poem in the Examiner on December 9, 1854, to commemorate the valiant actions of the light brigade that fought this battle in the Crimean War. It is said that Tennyson read a newspaper article about the Battle of Balaclava, where the charge took place, and wrote this poem within a matter of minutes. Tennyson’s son said later that the phrase from the article “some hideous blunder” caught his imagination; in the poem Tennyson’s words are “some one had blunder’d.” The poem was also included in an 1855 publication of his works. It was tremendously popular during its day, especially as it celebrated both the military and the common man’s perspective. Another famous British poet, Rudyard Kipling, took up the same event in his work “The Last of the Light Brigade,” but focused on how poorly the soldiers were treated once they were back in England.

The poem has six stanzas of differing lengths. The meter is dactylic, meaning that one stressed syllable is succeeded by two unstressed syllables. This gives the sense of boldly galloping or thundering like a drum. The rhyme scheme is irregular. Anaphora is also used (repetition of the same word at the beginning of multiple lines), which here creates the sense of the barrage the soldiers were facing, and which in general intensifies the emotion of the scene. The rhymes also tend to intensify the emotion and suggest the inevitability of the situation rather than something like unrhymed free verse would have done, which would have evoked mere chaos.

The Crimean War was a conflict between the Russian Empire and the forces of the British Empire, French Empire, Ottoman Empire, and Kingdom of Sardinia. It spanned three years, from 1853 to 1856, and was largely concerned with the territories of the Ottoman Empire, which by this time was in decline. The famous charge of the British light cavalry took place at the Battle of Balaclava on October 25, 1854. This brigade was supposed to pursue a Russian artillery train but, due to miscommunication, was instead sent into a frontal assault against heavily fortified Russian defenses. The British were valorous but were cut to pieces and retreated with immense casualties (some estimates say 247 of the 637 died).

The reasons for the poem’s contemporary popularity should be evident because it is such a stirring expression of courage under fire, of heroism under impossible odds, of the might of the English military. Tennyson’s images are powerful; he creates a scene of chaos and carnage with cannons thundering and shells falling. The men are stoic and unquestioning as English men are supposed to be, and they embrace their orders without offering critique or refusal. (Tennyson also captures the frustration of the blunder and the perhaps needless loss of life.) The men ride “boldly” and fight well in the hellish battle, in the “valley of Death” that is their burial ground.

The phrase “valley of Death” is probably an allusion to Psalm 23, which speaks of “the valley of the shadow of death,” where the speaker does not fear evil because of trust in God’s leading. Yet, unlike the psalm, it is not a wise God but a blundering order that has led the men into their predicament. In any case, the personification of the valley and the “mouth of Hell” creates a terrifying scene; the six hundred men are truly remarkable for throwing themselves into this monstrous situation under orders.

It is important that the memory of these men lives on, that their glory never fades. The poet calls upon readers to “Honour the charge they made! / Honour the Light Brigade,” for their duty, loyalty, and perseverance. This political poem is quite different from his mythical, lyrical, and narrative works, although the theme of death is certainly prominent once again, and the poem fits the nobility of the fighters and the need to recognize the noble valor of military men.

What is it about?

Tennyson wrote The Charge of the Light Brigade after reading a newspaper report about the Battle of Balaclava in 1854.  

At the time Britain and France were at war with Russia and fighting over control of Crimea (the same region that Russia recently controversially re-occupied) – hence the name ‘The Crimean War’.  It was one of the first wars in which the public were able to read regular updates in the newspaper, due to the recent development of the electric telegraph network, and journalists had been sent to report on the events.  

On the 25th October 1854, 670 cavalrymen and officers were given an ambiguous order to attack Russian troops armed with cannons. Tennyson relates how the cavalry (the ‘Light Brigade’) attacked, showing heroic bravery and discipline, despite severe artillery fire from three directions.  They failed to defeat the gunners and were forced to retreat, losing more than two hundred killed outright, wounded or captured.

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson

1.
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.

2.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone 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.

3.
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.

4.
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.

5.
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.

6.
When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.

Purpose
Tennyson was Poet Laureate at the time of writing and at the height of his career and popularity.  He later told how he had read the news about the Battle of Balaclava in the Times, which had included the phrase 'Someone had blundered', which had established the rhythm and started him writing the poem, which he mainly wrote in a single effort in a few minutes.



He was used to producing 'occasional' pieces of verse to mark important occasions and wanted to pay respect to the military personnel who had lost their lives.  This makes The Charge of the Light Brigade partly an unusual elegy as well as an excellent narrative poem - and a piece that has remained popular in performance.

In fact, Tennyson himself made an early recording of the poem in 1890, which survives.  Just don't expect great quality!

Speech
Tennyson includes speech as part of his poem, He asks rhetorical questions, giving a strong impression of his own perspective and then gives direct instructions (using a repeated imperative verb, 'Honour…!').  This means that the poem is always associated with him as a poet, and it did become one of his most famous pieces: just short enough to memorise and exciting and patriotic enough to teach to children.

You could compare it to another of his very successful military pieces, 'The Revenge - A Ballad of the Fleet'

Imagery
There is relatively little imagery used, but what Tennyson does choose are powerful, 'heavy' phrases.  The 'valley of Death' is an echo of biblical language, specifically the 'valley of the shadow of death' in Psalm 23.  This borrows the serious tone of religious language as well as the morbid reference in describing the actual valley that the cavalry rode through.

He describes their destination as the 'jaws of Death', implying the jaws of a trap or monster, and this is echoed by the phrase 'mouth of Hell'.

Form
You can't read The Charge of the Light Brigade without quickly noticing the powerful rhythm.  You might find it reminiscent of horses' hooves or military drums, but it changes pace and pattern through the stanzas and between the lines.  However, the poem is written in front-stressed metre - either trochees or dactyls - unlike the majority of English poetry which is written in iambic or 'rising' metre.

Front-stressed patterns start with a heavy beat (like 'Boldly' or 'Alphabet'), which can help a poem sound rhythmically regular even when the number of syllables changes.  Another important 19th century poem that used front-stressed (or 'falling') metres was Longfellow's Hiawatha - you might notice some similarity.

Repetition is absolutely key to making this rhythm work as well as having a relentless forward motion that mimics the charge of the cavalry.  Each time Tennyson lists the positions of the cannon, he builds the idea of the surrounding groups of artillery, making them seem overwhelming and omnipresent.

The Charge of the Light Brigade has 6 stanzas of changing length: Tennyson did not create a fixed shape but wrote quickly, lengthening and shortening his verses to emphasise the ideas and words he wanted at the forefront of his reader's mind.  And he certainly succeeded!  For a few minutes' work he managed to create something that has been quoted for more than 150 years and has helped shape British culture.

trochee - a two-syllable pattern with a stressed beat followed by an unstressed (eg 'Boldly')

dactyl - a three-syllable pattern with a stressed beat followed by two unstressed, usually quicker, beats (like 'Alphabet' or 'Send me then…')

For extra support with poetry analysis, why not book a lesson with one of our experienced GCSE English tutor? With Tutorfair you can browse through a selection of great tutors to find the right one for you.

For More GCSE poem analyses similar to Love's Philosophy: The Farmer's Bride, Love's Philosophy, Neutral Tones, Kamikaze, Ozymandias and When We Two Parted.

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