Literature

The Meaning and Origin of ‘Into the Valley of Death Rode the Six Hundred’

‘Into the valley of Death rode the six hundred.’ Or, to be precise and observe the line break: ‘Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred.’ This is one of several famous quotations which originated in the 1854 poem ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ written by the UK Poet Laureate of the time, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92).

Tennyson, who was Poet Laureate for a record 42 years, wrote the poem in response to a very specific event, and it was this event that inspired the lines, ‘Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred.’ Let’s take a look at the poem, and the event.

Tennyson’s poem has become one of the most widely studied and anthologised Victorian poems, and many people would recognise some of the lines from the poem, especially a poem that would last beyond the occasion for which it was written. And although ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ was, in one respect, an occasional poem, it also offered a timeless reflection on the senselessness that accompanies much of war, while also praising the unflinching bravery and sense of duty of the soldiers who gave their lives.

The poem was inspired by one of the greatest calamities in British military history: on October 25, 1854, during the Crimean War, the British Light Cavalry Brigade, comprising some 670 men, charged disastrously against some 25,000 Russian soldiers. Lord Raglan’s plan was to send the Light Brigade to prevent the Russians from removing some guns that had been seized from Turkish positions. But somewhere along the chain of command there was a ‘blunder’, and the Light Brigade was instead sent on a frontal assault against a vastly superior army, rather than on the gun-capturing mission, with perhaps inevitably tragic results. The Light Brigade charged, as commanded, but were quickly forced into a retreat, though not before some 278 men had been wounded or killed in the charge.

Tennyson wrote the poem soon after hearing of the tragedy, on 2 December 1854. Having read an article he read about the charge in The Times newspaper, he quickly responded with a poem which manages to salute the soldiers’ bravery and sense of military duty while also wagging the finger at those who had ‘blundered’ and given such an ill-fated command. The poem was published in The Examiner a week later, on 9 December 1854, while public shock was still high.

One of the things Tennyson’s poem emphasises is the bravery and nobility of the soldiers, the ‘Noble six hundred’, who obeyed their orders and rode, in many cases, to their deaths. And the poem famously begins with this stanza:

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.

‘All in the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred’ and then ‘Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred.’ And ‘the valley of Death’ cannot help but bring to mind a biblical passage, from the 23rd Psalm:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. 

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

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.

In other words, ‘the valley of Death’ sounds like an unforgivingly bleak landscape, and it was for the soldiers; but Tennyson’s subtle allusion to the 23rd Psalm raises the possibility of Christian salvation, and suggests – however gently – that the dead soldiers have been taken up by God and, despite the swift and untimely deaths of many of the men, they are now in heaven, blessed by God.

So much for ‘the valley of Death’; but what about that ‘six hundred’? Surely that is straightforward enough …

Curiously, the original report had the number at nearer 600 men, although it later emerged that the exact number was nearer 700; but ‘Noble seven hundred’ wouldn’t have scanned, and Tennyson, whilst annoyed with himself for the inaccuracy, reluctantly let the initial number stand as a record of the public feeling that attended news of the disaster. This didn’t sit entirely well with him and he didn’t rush to plead ‘poetic licence’ for having a lower number in his poem, even when new facts came to light, which is a measure of the social responsibility he felt as Poet Laureate.

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.

The poem’s insistent dactylic metre (heard so well in the poem’s opening lines, ‘Half a league, Half a league, / Half a league onward’) captures both the plaintive nature of the catastrophe and the dogged and dutiful charge of the men into ‘the valley of death’.

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