An analysis of the form and structure of Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”

In last week’s post, I looked at the context behind Tennyson’s poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in AQA’s GCSE English Literature poetry anthology, “Power and Conflict”. The poem was one of the first real-time responses to war reportage in the newspapers, written in Tennyson’s role as Poet Laureate. This post will look in more detail at the form and structure of the poem to help you write about it in any exam.

Some of you may be wondering what I have in my head when I come to a poem to think about the form and structure. I have a kind of loose framework of things I might want to think about:

Form

How it’s set out on the page; line length, syllables, rhythm (metre) rhyme, what words are on what line, number of lines, sonnet, couplets, three lines, quatrains, regularity of the number of lines in a verse/stanza, capitals (or lack of) main punctuation at the end of lines or stanzas (, . , .  / , , , . / ; : ; . )  phrase splits and the way the words fall on each line, which ideas are linked within the line or stanza and which are separate, caesura, enjambment.

Form is what makes it a poem and not prose. Why does it look the way it does? What decisions has the poet made about what he has put on one line and what on another? Why this form? 

Structure

This explores how the ideas are organised and sequenced, viewpoint/perspective (third person? First person?) TiP ToP – Time Place Topic Person – shifts? Shift in time? Place? Why are the ideas in this order? External actions (happenings) vs internal thoughts? Circular structure? Beginning, middle, end? How does the title weave through the poem? Does the ending link back or develop from the opening? 

Structure is the arrangement and sequence of the ideas, as well as some other aspects. I ask myself why here and not there?

So how do I apply this to “The Charge of the Light Brigade”?

One thing I know about Tennyson is that he loves rhyme, rhythm and metre. I’ll be looking at how he uses these three techniques to give a really rollicking rhythm to the poem, and why he does that. I’ll do my usual as well: bit of feature spotting, which is all very well, but not worth very much, and a bit of commentary on the writer’s purpose as well as the effect on the reader.

Firstly, the stanzas. There’s no real regularity, is there? 8 lines, 9 lines… then 9, 12, 11 and 6. Not particularly even. So I can wonder to myself if he’s just used the number of lines that felt natural to use, or whether there’s a kind of sense of build up to something in the fourth and fifth stanzas. Six lines seems like a brief conclusion.

Then there’s also the way it reads, the way Tennyson has used rhythm. We’ll explore more about that later, but it’s a poem that’s very easy to read aloud. That’s very purposeful. It reads like a poem designed for performance, not a poem designed to be constrained by the page. The line breaks, the rhythm, the rhyme and the metre all make the poem very easy to read aloud. You’ll not notice yourself tripping over words.

But when you get down into the mechanics of those techniques, it’s not always so neat. I don’t think you notice the lack of neatness when you are reading it, but it’s not quite so neat as you’d expect.

First the syllables. Well, it’s a bit like the stanzas. Loosely regular, but then not. Lots of six-syllable lines in there, and some sevens. The five-syllable final line might not be all that it looks, so we’ll look at that a little more.

All six stanzas finish with what appears to be a five-syllable line:

Rode the six hundred
Rode the six hundred
Rode the six hundred
Not the six hundred
Left of six hundred
Noble six hundred

But you could actually say “hundred” (normally two syllables, hun-dred) as three syllables: hun-der-ed. According to one of Tennyson’s friends, W. F. Rawnsley, in Lincolnshire, Tennyson’s home county, the pronunciation would have been hun-der-ed. That gives you something else to think about.

Still, there are reasons I like it to be five syllables and not six. The first is that we’ve got another line in each stanza that is most definitely five syllables:

Rode the six hundred
Some one had blundered
Volleyed and thundered
All the world wondered
Shattered and sundered
Volleyed and thundered
All the wold wondered

Now apart from the fact that these lines rhyme with the end line of each stanza, they’re also five syllables. I’m pretty sure, whilst I can accept hun-der-ed as a pronunciation, nobody would say thun-der-ed or won-der-edSo for that reason, I like it as a five.

I’m pretty sure with the rhyme of these two pairs of lines that Tennyson is using them to not only weave the poem together but also to form these pairs of lines, which are a bit like stopping points holding the poem together. Each stanza has at least two. If the stanza has eight lines, the fourth and eighth are these ones. It’s like the mid-point of each stanza (or just before). In my copy, the lines are also indented on the page. That’s three reasons that these lines form neat pairs. So five is what I’m going with.

These lines have a really driving rhythm. Dactyl (STRESS-unstressed-unstressed) and then a trochee (STRESS-unstressed) You start off with a really strong beat and kind of get carried along with it. These are probably random and pointless words to you. But a dactyl was a bit new-fangled. You see it a lot in that crazy-eyed Walt Whitman in the USA, and also in Browning. Not only does this then emphasise certain words but gives it a great pace:

SHATT-ered and SUN-dered
VOLLeyed and THUNDered

In fact, this poem is one of the best examples of dactylic rhythm that there is. The dactyl is the first three syllables and the trochee is the second:

SHATT-ered and /SUN-dered
VOLLeyed and /THUNDered

All of this complicated stuff about rhythm is not so important. Saying there’s a dactyl followed by a trochee won’t impress the examiner any more than identifying a simile would. What is important is that the rhythm is rousing and fast paced, easy to scan and read aloud. It’s a galloping beat. The effect is more important than the techniques. Tennyson used these rhythms to give the impression of the speed and haste of the battle, the confident beat emphasises the ‘charge’.

The other noticeable thing about the form is that it includes such a lot of monosyllabic lines. The first two lines give it a kind of echo of horses at full gallop

DUM-dee-DUM, DUM-dee-DUM
DUM-dee-DUM-dee-dee.

The rhythm and monosyllables give it a real pace, like the men, like the cavalry charge.

In terms of the structure, this is a third-person narrative, so it has an outsider’s point of view: this is Tennyson’s poem and his feelings about the event, narrative as it may be. Where we see words like “noble”, this is Tennyson’s view of the event. Our first question must always be to wonder what his view is, and what his aim is. Why write this poem?

For me, despite the error that caused this catastrophe, it’s a celebration of the battle, a commemmoration. Tennyson wanted to put it onto the historical map. Of all the battles, this is one he thought worth memorialising. What is it about the battle that he finds worth commemorating? The bravery of the men against all odds seems to be the one thing that Tennyson finds worth writing a poem about. Their blind loyalty. Their continued courage despite the fact they know they’re outgunned.

It’s also past tense, which also gives it a quality of a narrative in the same way as the third-person viewpoint. I’m guessing everyone who read the poem at the time would have known the situation and the outcome – a bit like a poem about 9/11 maybe. The ending is never going to be a surprise for someone reading this at the time that Tennyson published it. It might be for a more modern audience – there are few battles that we remember outside of individual events, and most of those are fairly well known… the battle of Hastings… the battle of the Somme… the battle of Agincourt… the battle of Waterloo… the battle of Trafalgar.

But some of those battles fade in our minds or blend into the whole war itself. I’m guessing, unless you are a bit of a history buff, that battles like the battle of Fulford, the battle of Tewkesbury or the battle of Corunna are less well known to you. The Charge of the Light Brigade isn’t even a battle in itself, it’s just an event within a battle within a war. I bet even if I said the Battle of Balaclava and the Crimean War, you might still be none the wiser. It’s through Tennyson’s poem that this event has been remembered.

We start in the middle of the action, with no preamble or introduction to the event. The title itself would be enough for Tennyson to give contemporary readers the knowledge they would need of the who, the what, the where and the when. For modern readers, it’s a little less clear: we might need to do a bit of research to know where this takes place and who was involved, when it happened and what went on. Starting in the middle of the action puts us bang slap in the middle of the action. The technical term for this is in medias res which means to drop you into the middle of the action and fill in the details afterwards. Usually, writers will use flashback or description of past events to tell you what happened, which is exactly what Tennyson does. Starting in the middle of the action makes it really dramatic – it’s a technique used in narrative all the time. Think of how often you get it in films or in fiction.

For this reason, the poem is non-linear. We get stanza one, which inserts us into the action in the moments that the ‘Charge!’ command has been given. In stanza two, we get the backstory behind the charge – “someone had blundered” – and we dip into a little observational comment from Tennyson, “Their’s not to make reply…” before coming right back to the action again with the cannon on either side of them, the sabres flashing. In stanza four, we shift perspective a little as we step back from the battle scene to consider “while/All the world wondered”. In stanza four and five, they also mark their retreat. The final stanza acts as a conclusion, another Tennyson commentary on the events, including some direct commands in “Honour the charge they made” and his final interjection: “Noble six hundred!”

The structure, then, is mostly linear with a tiny bit of exposition about why this happened, but no context at all. The narrative is peppered with Tennyson’s own commentary and feelings as he comments on the events.

The poem takes place in one single setting: the battlefield outside Balaklava in the disputed Russian/Ukrainian province of Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea. It is also one single moment in time: the charge itself. It has a brief exit from the setting and time, when Tennyson steps back to consider how the rest of the world feel about the event and to step back in time to comment that “someone had blundered”. We get a focus on the six hundred as a whole without considering any specific cavalryman individually. As such it sees the troops as one single force.

Tennyson creates a poem that has many threads that hold the narrative together. First, there are rhythmic threads and there are threads held together by rhyme. There are repeated threads, with echoes of the six hundred throughout. We’ll look more at repetition and the language devices used by Tennyson to create a cohesive narrative in the next post which will explore language and imagery in much more detail.

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.

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One thought on “An analysis of the form and structure of Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”

  1. Pingback: An analysis of the language and ideas in The Charge of the Light Brigade | Teaching English

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