A Soldier’s Plight: A Brief Analysis of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

The Charge of the Light Brigade
BY ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON
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!

 

 

When President George W. Bush sent American troops to Iraq in 2003, most Americans protested the decision, just as they did when troops entered the jungles of Vietnam in the 1960’s. In both cases, the nation felt that soldiers were being sent on a kind of suicide mission that had nothing to with national security or spreading democracy. As Nixon had done, Bush was merely helping to spread a tyrannous “patriotic” influence around the globe through the might of the military. “He just wants to protect his rich oil fields,” many complained. Why would soldiers be sent to risk their lives to fight meaningless battles just for the self interests of politicians? “War Pigs,” a dark 1960’s song by the band Black Sabbath, condemned American politicians as power hungry murderers who would soon be judged by the wrath of God.

 
Others saw the raid on Iraq as nothing more or less than a soldier’s duty to their nation, to bring the enemies of America to justice. Questioning orders would be an inappropriate response. Such disobedience dishonors one’s nation. Even from the days of the Anglo Saxons, when the epic poem Beowulf was first composed as one of the earliest forms of British literature, duty to one’s general was worthy of honor and respect. But if one turned on one’s leaders or failed to be heroic in the field of battle, they would be shunned as a coward for the rest of their lives.

 
In this brief essay, I will attempt to argue that Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” exemplifies this conflict between a soldier’s duty and a soldier’s questioning of authority. Tennyson published the poem during the Crimean War, which occurred from 1854-1856. It was a feud between the powers of Britain and Russia. Tennyson, on reading about the war in a newspaper, wrote the poem soon afterwards. The poem is based on the account of a group of British soldiers attacking a Russian front line due to some kind of misunderstanding between the soldiers and the generals. As for my own research, I don’t exactly know what went on between the soldiers and the leaders. Some have argued that, as a whole, the Crimean War was a meaningless trifle between Britains and Russians, a blight on British Victorian history. Tennyson recited his ballad as Britain’s poet laureate for Queen Victoria, when the soldiers who had died were being remembered for their charge. But how did Tennyson feel about the battle? Did he approve or disapprove?

 
The second stanza of the poem is particularly enlightening. It reads as follows:

 
“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

 

 

The question is whether the soldiers, on having to charge a heavily gunned battalion of Russians and Cossacks, are inwardly troubled by the orders they cannot understand. They seem to be confident in their duties, even though someone had “blundered” in theirs. The leaders, perhaps? The stupidity of the leaders intrudes on the valor and simplicity that the soldiers stand for. The line “Someone had blundered” occurs with a kind of indent, slowing the quick, flowing rhythm of the previous three lines. But the fighters do not question their orders. Indeed, it is not their place to do so, according to the speaker. They do not have the right, as military servants, to veer from the general’s commands. It is reminiscient of the old motif of a soldier’s duty, for therein lies their chief honor and glory. Their ultimate goal is “to do and die.” The readers of Tennyson’s day would have thought this to be the correct attitude. But to modern readers, and especially the ones after the First World War, with its unprecedented brutality, this attitude is unrealistic, for it fails to comprehend just how terrible and confusing war can become. If a soldier’s way is but to “do and die”, then they are discardable at best, humans who have lost their worth. They are disposable heroes.

 
The speed of the poem continues with rhymes such as “Flashed all their sabres bare/ Flashed as they turned in air/ Sabering the gunners there/ Charging an army” (Lines 26-30). As such the poem flows smoothly when spoken aloud. The verbs “Sabering, Charging, and Flashed” serve to give the listener a view of the intensity of the British Cavalrymen’s charge. But then another indented line occurs, once more dramatically slowing down the poem’s rhythm: “All the world wondered.” The line gives the reader the sense that they are watching the battle from a peaceful distance. And why does the world (surprisingly not just Britain!) wonder, or what are they wondering at? The valor of the Brigade, or the foolishness of their charge? Tennyson never elaborates. Such ambiguity makes the reader wonder as well, about exactly how to interpret the charge.
But the sixth stanza seems to indicate that Tennyson approved of the charge after all:

 
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!

 

 

By calling the Brigade noble, Tennyson deems their worth beyond measure, for their battle was more glorious than can be conceived. Yet one must remember that he recited this to Queen Victoria, during a memorial service honoring the fallen dead. Maybe Tennyson had no choice but to give the queen an honorable version of what was, in reality, a serious military blunder that cost a lot of lives. To reveal the skeletons in the closet would be most unwise. Otherwise, the poet would’ve been hounded out of Great Britain. Yet again, Britain, during the nineteenth century, expanded their Empire, and one of its chief glories was the might of their military, especially in their conquering vast, foreign terrains. Other writers such as Rudyard Kipling praised this power of Britain to spread its noble influence around the world. And being a part of the military was a primary part of this large European machine. A soldier’s obedience was one honor not to be shunned. Giving one’s life for their nation stood as the highest honor. Only later, in the dawn of the twentieth century, would the notion be seriously put to the test.

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