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A Short Analysis of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’

An introduction to one of Tennyson’s most popular poems

‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ is one of Alfred, Lord Tennyson‘s most famous poems. Here is the poem, followed by a few words by way of textual analysis. Its meaning is relatively straightforward, but some of its linguistic effects are worth commenting on.

I

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.

II

‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
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.

III

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.

IV

Flashed all their sabres bare,
Flashed as they turned in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wondered.
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right through the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reeled from the sabre stroke
Shattered and sundered.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

V

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell.
They that had fought so well
Came through the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

VI

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

The poem is one of the rare instances of a Poet Laureate producing a good poem while in office. It was inspired by one of the greatest calamities in British military history: on October 25, 1854, the British Light Cavalry Brigade, comprising some 670 men, charged disastrously against some 25,000 Russian soldiers. Tennyson wrote the poem on 2 December 1854 in response to an article in The Times about the event, and the poem was published Charge of the Light Brigadein The Examiner a week later, on 9 December 1854. The poem condemns the charge (and resultant heavy casualties suffered by the Light Brigade) as a terrible ‘blunder’, but praises the bravery and nobility of the soldiers, the ‘Noble six hundred’, who obeyed their orders and charged to their deaths. (The original report had the number at nearer 600 men, although it later emerged that the exact number was nearer 700.) An estimated 278 soldiers were killed or wounded in the charge.

As with much war poetry – and ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ is, after all, a war poem – Tennyson uses biblical allusions to bring home the grand sacrifice made by the soldiers: ‘the valley of death’ is from the 23rd Psalm (that’s the one that begins ‘The Lord is my shepherd…’): ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.’ As well as contributing to the sonorous note of the poem, this allusion also offers comfort: men may make blunders, but the Lord will see that good overcomes evil. Many of Tennyson’s Victorian readers would have found such a message comforting, despite some of them – and Tennyson himself – harbouring doubts over the literal truth of Christianity.

The famous line of the poem, ‘Their’s but to do and die’, is often misquoted as ‘Their’s but to do or die’, which gives the poem a different inflection. But Tennyson’s point is that there is no question of whether the soldiers will fail to carry out their military duty, even when presented with such a wrongheaded command to charge. They will do it and die, for queen and country. Another line that is often misremembered is ‘Cannon to right of them’, which is sometimes erroneously rendered as ‘Cannon to the right of them’, which disrupts the rigid rhythm of the line: the omission of ‘the’ makes the line sound slightly curtailed and hurried, evoking the rashness of the charge itself. The absence of ‘the’ from the line also makes it sound a little odd or unnatural, once again suggesting that there is something wrong here. Why are these men, members of this light brigade, being ordered to charge into the heavy cannon-fire of the enemy?

After the charge, not much remains of the ‘six hundred’ who rode into battle – nearly half of them had sustained heavy injuries or been killed, while the other half felt that the whole charge had been a colossal waste of life. Tennyson’s use of the word ‘left’ (‘All that was left of them, / Left of six hundred’) picks up on the word’s use earlier in the same stanza (‘Cannon to left of them’), but shifts the word’s meaning from a spatial sense to one denoting the sacrifice the men have made. As the old line attributed to Bertrand Russell has it, war doesn’t determine who is right – only who is left.

You can listen to Tennyson reading the poem here: it’s possibly the first recording ever made by a poet of them reading their own work.

Image: The Charge of the Light Brigade, by William Simpson (1855); Wikimedia Commons.

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Posted on January 26, 2016, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. It’s a beautiful and very touching poem.

  2. Thanks reading this poem after a long time.

  3. Me gusta este poema y ahora entiendo mejor si contenido y significado.

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