The Charge of the Light Brigade by Tennyson is a poem that recounts extreme acts of valour and patriotism. It recounts a battle between the British and the Russian forces in the Battle of Balaclava in 1854 and it precedes later poems in the Power and Conflict section of the AQA GCSE English Literature poetry anthology such as Bayonet Charge and Exposure where conflict is explored in a critical way.
In terms of context, what you may want to know is a little about Tennyson and a little about the battle itself. Don’t forget that you are not writing a GCSE History essay and you are not expected to write more than a couple of sentences here and there where it is relevant. Full paragraphs about Tennyson or about the Battle of Balaclava will be treated as if they are an incongruous little physics equation or chemical calculation or artwork in the middle of your essay… nice, but not the domain of English Literature, and fairly unmarkable for the average GCSE English Literature student. If you’re reaching your third sentence on context, you have gone too far! If you are telling your examiner what happened in the Charge of the Light Brigade, you’re also going into an essay dead end. What I want to know is how the context of the poem was important for the content of the poem. In other words, what do you need to know to make sense of the poem?
Remember too that the mark for context also covers a mark for perspectives and/or ideas. Context and/or perspectives and/or ideas. Your ability to write a page about the causes of the conflict in the Crimea in the 1850s is wonderful. But it’s not relevant.
So when it comes to context, know it but don’t harp on about it. Know it because it’s interesting. Don’t harp on about it because writing too much about it is as effective as drawing a triangle and working out the hypoteneuse.
That said, now I am going to tell you the context, and I am going to harp on about it. Then it’s up to you to think about how much of that is important for how it relates to the poem, just as you will do with Ozymandias and with My Last Duchess.
He was born in 1809 in the Lincolnshire Wolds to a father who was the rector in a church. Tennyson was a fan of epics and at the age of twelve, he’d already written an epic 6000-line poem. Certainly beats obsessing over boy bands and reading Judy Blume like I was doing aged twelve, anyway. That early start gave him all the practice he needed to become a poetry giant, if not THE poetry giant of all. The Victorian time gave us epics, and it gave us Dickens. It also gave us Tennyson, who liked a bit of epic himself. He wrote poems about mythology, about England, about King Arthur… all fantastically epic stuff.
What do epics have in common? They are long, lengthy poems about heroic deeds. They’re often about heroic values too – what makes a hero, what does heroism look like to different cultures? Epics feature heroes that embody the qualities of a hero at that time in that country – they very much reflect the ideals and values of the time, how that culture viewed a hero. That’s important here. We need to understand what the poem says about how Victorians viewed heroes, and to know how we view heroes too.
I mean, I get the feeling that we don’t generally consider it to be a brave and noble thing to die for your country. Don’t get me wrong, at all. Soldiers who die in the line of fire are brave beyond brave. Fighting wrong in other countries to help protect people who you’ve never met… that’s something truly indescribable. But our perspective on heroism has changed. We no longer think that it is an honour to DIE for your country (to serve it, maybe) and that is perhaps one reason why we don’t feel comfortable with huge battles like those of World War One and Two, which had more in common with massacre than with honour. I think, and this is very much just my opinion, that the Average Joe on the street will think it quite horrible that anyone should have to die for a cause they believe in. After all, look how our view of terrorists have changed. We call such people radicals and fanatics, and idolise Martin Luther King, or Nelson Mandela, who changed countries with words and protest, not with war. We see soldiers as serving the country and protecting the peace. When they die, it is a horrible tragedy, not something we just write off as glorious and noble.
But the Victorians at the point the poem was written wouldn’t have had much problem accepting the “glory” of these soldiers’ deaths, especially since we British do like to see ourselves as David vs Goliath, George vs The Dragon. We do love stories of how we underdogs beat back the big boys.
So that’s the first thing you have to know about context. This very much embodies how people felt about dying for your country. It was a great and glorious thing to do.
What else about Tennyson and about the epic?
In 1850, he was announced as Poet Laureate, following Wordsworth’s death. This in itself carries a kind of focus within it. He became England’s national poet. You’re literally the poetic voice of Great Britain. It also carries a bit of responsibility: you’re supposed to write vaguely patriotic or British things from time to time, like a poem about the visit of the Queen’s future daughter-in-law, that sort of thing. And Tennyson fulfilled his duties in a – well – dutiful kind of a way. Not his best poetry, but if you need a poem about current events writing, Tennyson did his job admirably, especially since he was third choice for the role.
So in 1854, when he’s reading about the Charge of the Light Brigade in the papers, it probably sounded like it would make a great poem for your old poet-y duties. Not a poem that Tennyson was particularly pleased with or proud of, nevertheless, it was rousingly patriotic in a “Rule Britannia” king of way. Something in the news account obviously interested him and for this reason, you’ve got almost a connection to War Photographer, with an artist (photographer or writer) who tries to use their artistic talents to share a little about the battlefield. For Tennyson, however, that is not his own experience, which came via the newspaper, no matter how vivid you find it. For that reason, the perspective in the poem contrasts well with Owen’s perspective as a soldier rather than an onlooker in Exposure.
He also uses lots of features of the epic in his own poetry, but he is also a poet who likes the sound and rhythm of words. That is obvious to anyone who listens to The Charge of the Light Brigade. You can also see this in a lot of his other poetry. He enjoys the rhythms of poetic language, and the way words sound.
About the battle itself…
The Charge of the Light Brigade took place during the Battle of Balaclava, which took place during the Siege of Sevastopol, which took place during the Crimean War. French, Ottoman (loosely what is some of Turkey now) and English troops fought against Russian troops over a three-year period. A tired old Ottoman empire at the end of its lifespan was bolstered by troops from France and England in what was, on the surface, a battle to protect religious minorities but was in fact a battle that ended up about territory, as these things always do. Russia’s always at that world domination thing, but when you don’t have a great navy because your ports are frozen for a lot of the year, then places like Sevastopol on the warm waters of the Black Sea give you naval access to North Africa, to the Middle East, to the Mediterranean. That’s why they become important. The Crimea may have started out as a scuffle over religion but it soon ended with Britain, France, the Ottomans (and Sardinia!) taking it as an opportunity to put an end to Russia’s attempts to control the Black Sea and expand its rule into Europe. Not much different than today, then.
What else is interesting about the war? First, it was one of the first that was heavily reported in the media, which made the political decisions answerable to public opinion. It was the first time the public got to see and hear stories of what really happened in war. It was also one of the first truly modern wars and there were a great many losses. Public outcry when the war promised to go on for a long time meant that Prime Minister George Hamilton-Gordon resigned, and most people consider the war to be a colossal example of military mismanagement. I don’t know about war stuff so I’ll defer to the historians on that one.
All very interesting, but relevant?
In parts, yes. You’d need to know that Tennyson was THE national poet, writing a nationalistic piece perhaps as part of his role of poet laureate. He didn’t even really like the poem himself, so we can only assume he wrote it out of some kind of obligation to the role.
You also need to know that the general public knew more about what was going on than in any other war previously: it’s this knowledge that allows Tennyson to write the poem but also know that it appealed very much to the things on the front pages of the newspaper. That’s interesting if you compare it to War Photographer or even Ozymandias or My Last Duchess in terms of how the artist has power (if you consider journalists to be artists!) but there’s certainly something about the power to present a situation. That makes this another “popular” poem written about events seen in a newspaper (and in fact, since both Ozymandias and My Last Duchess were inspired by things the poets had read, makes an interesting point of comparison about the power of the poet, which is in many times the way that long-dead historical characters or events have come to be immortalised… would anyone know about the Duke of Ferrara, about Ozymandias, about the Charge of the Light Brigade, if it weren’t for the poets who exercised their power… an interesting essay in there, I’m sure!)
I think the media’s attempts to “report” an event rather than load it full of bias (I say this with heavy irony) is also a contextual detail that affects the poem: Tennyson also presents this event as “warts and all” in ways he wouldn’t have been able to do from his comfy Isle of Wight armchair if it were not for the newspapers.
I think also it’s important to know that at the time Tennyson wrote, Britain had no way of knowing whether we would win against Russia or not. In the long run it ended in an armistice, but does that make the actions of this brigade more heroic or less? I think the fact that it was written when the outcome of the war wasn’t known is interesting. If you ask me, it takes away a little from the heroism because we know how the war ended, but it emphasises the casual way in which lives were lost as a result of the “blunder” or mistake made. When you have the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to say that the battle seemed avoidable, or that it was a pointless waste of life for no gain, but it’s not easy to say that in the months following on from the battle. But we read this poem differently than it would have been read by Tennyson’s contemporary audience, and that’s an important thing to think about. It’s also important to know that he wrote this without knowing whether we would win or lose in Crimea.
In terms of what will help you about the context of this poem, then you have five things that you might want to mention if the opportunity presents itself:
- Poetic context… what epics are and what epics generally do;
- Tennyson’s context… why he wrote the poem, how it influenced what he did, what he hoped to achieve, his role as Poet Laureate;
- Tennyson’s personal poetic context… that he liked to write epics, that he often explored the idea of “The Heroic”, that he was a poet who loved sound and rhythm in poetry;
- The historical context… that this was written at the height of Queen Victoria’s Empire, maybe the years when Britain is at its peak, that the Crimean War was characterised by blunders and mismanagement, of carelessness and also brave battles where British troops were outmanned and outgunned, that Tennyson had no idea of how it would end when he wrote the poem, that the war itself was the first one reported widely in the media (allowing Tennyson to write the poem);
- Perspective changes: how pre-World War One British citizens viewed war and death in battle, how that view has changed, how our view of war itself has changed.
So you have plenty – too much, indeed – to think about when it comes to the context of the poem and ways that you might incorporate some of these details. In the following posts, I’ll explore the form, structure and sound of the poem, as well as the language, perspectives and imagery, as well as how the context of the poem affects it.
If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthology, please send me an email via the website or Facebook and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.