The Charge Of The Light Brigade

It was on this day in 1854 that Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s classic poem The Charge Of The Light Brigade was published in London’s Examiner. The Charge itself had occurred on October 25th that year – the renowned “Saint Crispin’s Day” of national pride in England, famous for the victory of Henry V over the French 439 years earlier. For most of the century which followed the poem’s publication, it was a classroom standard throughout the English-speaking world. The poem’s rapid, rhythmic cadence, suggestive of the thunder of charging horsemen, its use of plain, mostly familiar vocabulary, and its story of unquestioning valor and unthinkable tragedy made it a popular exemplar of literary artistry and patriotic virtue. Many a shoolchild had to memorize all or part of the poem for public recitation.

By the 1960’s, though, the poem was falling out of favor. It’s praise for mindless obedience to utterly brainless orders was seen as epitomizing all that was wrong with conformity and “the system.” It is ironic that at the time it was published, Tennyson’s poem was criticized as being anti-war and unduly fanning the flames of public opinion against its conduct.

The Crimean War was the first war in which public opinion played a crucial part because it was the first war in which correspondents could file dispatches almost immediately back to home via the telegraph. As the war dragged on and on without seeming purpose, the public demanded to know why its sons and brothers were in a far-off foreign land, ill-supplied and ill-led, dying of disease and in battle. All for a cause which few people really understood.

The report of the pointless charge of the Light Brigade roused public indignation against the apparently incompetent conduct of the war. Tennyson’s poem was written in an atmosphere of disapproval of the war and the military. His aim was not to glorify the war, but to be sure that people did not villify the soldiers who did their duty, even as they condemned the commanders who blundered.

Much less well-known is Tennyson’s other poem about the battle of 25 October 1854, The Charge Of The Heavy Brigade. This poem also commemorates a charge on the same day as that of the Light Brigade, but it is almost never recited, almost never included in poetic anthologies. For one thing, it is quite simply nowhere near as good a poem as Light Brigade. But, too, it is even more openly anti-war than its famous companion piece, and perhaps 19th century anthologizers felt somewhat uncomfortable with it. The Charge Of The Heavy Brigade concludes with an epilogue that is unambiguous as to its aim:

EPILOGUE

IRENE:

Not this way will you set your name
A star among the stars.

POET:

What way?

IRENE:

You praise when you should blame
The barbarism of wars.
A juster epoch has begun.

Note: “Irene” is Greek for peace.

And if it has been a while since you have looked at it, here is Light Brigade:

THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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
Someone 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 wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.

——————————–
Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

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