In the last two posts, I’ve been exploring the context of The Charge of the Light Brigade by Tennyson as well as the form and structure in AQA’s GCSE English Literature anthology, Power and Conflict. It is a poem that has significant points to be made about historical and literary context, as well as making use of a rather rattling rhythm that probably plays a large part in why the poem has become so memorable. It carries us along through the narrative at a driving pace, making use of the stresses on words, monosyllabic words and syllabic rhythmic patterns to make it particularly memorable. It’s not often I say a poem is memorable, so there you go.
First, we have the repetition of “Half a league, half a league,/Half a league…” which establishes from the beginning that sense of movement, doubled by the driving, galloping beat to create a real sense of motion and progression. For me, it’s rich with determination and energy, purposeful like they are moving towards a goal.
The valley of death might be an interesting choice of words, but it is taken from the battle, and not the other way around. This area of the Balaclava was so thick with cannonballs that it had become known as the ‘Valley of Death’
It’s literally a valley. And you could die there. So not very imaginative of the person who gave it that name, who was almost certainly not Tennyson.
You see, Tennyson’s not just picking up on news reportage, but also the newly invented medium of photography. It helps him truly imagine the place he is writing about in his poem.
Not only does the person who coined the phrase for this bit of Crimea make use of a particular connection, but also Roger Fenton the photographer and Tennyson himself. The Valley of the Shadow of Death is a well-known line from Psalm 23, “The Lord is My Shepherd” which is probably the most famous psalm of them all – and the one that lots of people have read at their funerals, or in difficult times. Ironically, it’s supposed to be a message of encouragement, that God is with us even – and especially – in the most difficult times of our lives and we should not be afraid. I’m betting that in this God-forsaken hellhole, there were more people afraid than comforted in the belief that God was beside them. I find it a kind of irony too that the psalm is often thought to mean that we shall have eternal life: in this case, it is the poet who has granted the six hundred of the light brigade a kind of immortality.
The phrase “the six hundred” is also an example of metonymy (as is the Valley of Death, actually), or referring to something by another name that is closely associated with it, like “The Gunners” for Arsenal or “Fleet Street” for the national British newspapers. The six hundred refers to the Light Brigade. It means Tennyson is using “the six hundred” as a substitute for “the Light Brigade.”
It’s up to us, then, to think of the effect of that, to wonder why he might do it. For me, you might think it a technical thing. Do more words rhyme with hundred than brigade? Actually, no. In fact, Tennyson uses ALL the available and useful rhymes for hundred – blundered, sundered, thundered and wondered. Brigade rhymes with a lot more – one of which Tennyson makes use of – dismayed. But there are loads of useful rhymes for “brigade” – crusade, afraid, betrayed, decayed, unswayed and so on. By using “the six hundred”, Tennyson actually handicaps himself and makes it less easy to write. That tells me the “six hundred” is a metonymic switch he wants to make for effect. This kind of substitution is in fact a rhetorical device, but why do it? For me, Tennyson is emphasising the numbers: “the Light Brigade” could mean 11,000 men. “Six hundred” seems a lot fewer. A brigade sounds like a large number. Six hundred men does not. We stop thinking about them as one unit, as well, which is really important. To see them as one unit anonymises them and makes them even more faceless. Although six hundred doesn’t help us to think of them as individuals, it does help us imagine the number a lot more clearly than “the Light Brigade”, so I think Tennyson’s language choice is very purposeful here. Brigade would also emphasise that they are soldiers, rather than just men. Still, they are nameless, like so many of the casualities of war in the other poems of Power and Conflict. Names are quite important in the Power and Conflict section. Do you go naming people like Ozymandias only to show how their names are as likely to fade as their power? Do you go nameless, like the nameless soldier in London? Both have an effect. Here, it’s not important that they are seen as distinct individuals – they will be remembered as a group.
In the second stanza, we have perhaps one of the most famous series of lines in poetry about heroism and war:
Their’s not to make reply,
Their’s not to reason why,
Their’s but to do and die ;
The strong monosyllabic beat, the repetition, the rhyme, the simplicity of the words and the message all make these three lines incredibly memorable indeed. Not often that I say “these words are memorable” (when my head is shouting ‘simple, generalised comment!’) but these really are. So why did Tennyson want these words to be the most memorable words of the whole poem?
For me, it speaks much about loyalty, blind obedience, that unquestioning faith they had in their leaders – even if they had questions about what they were doing – their devotion to service, to their country. This is an act of honour, bravery, courage, faith, integrity… and also sacrifice. A pointless, meaningless sacrifice, throwing themselves before the cannon that surround them. The ultimate offering for their country. A worthless, ineffective, pointless gesture “though the soldier knew/Some one had blundered” which makes it even more sad, even more sorrowful. Their lives wasted for a “blunder”. This to me is the key to the whole poem – and more so because of just how many rhetorical devices Tennyson loads into it. We end stanza 2 picking up the action after Tennyson’s little commentary on the soldiers. The event – and the poem – has become a symbol of valour, patriotism, blind allegiance to the flag. It is seen as the ultimate act of bravery and heroism. Their fearlessness and valiance are seen as noble and courageous beyond measure. This is blind loyalty and allegiance. This is true determination and nobility of spirit. It’s become a symbol of man’s love of his country.
In stanza 3, Tennyson takes us into the heart of the action, bringing the battle to life in very vivid ways with rhyme, vocabulary and rhythm. The refrain about ‘Cannon to the right of them/Cannon to the left of them/Cannon (in front/behind them) is also very quick with a DUM-dee DUM-dee-DUM-dee-DUM/DUM-dee DUM-dee- DUM dee-DUM) rhythm which is quick and exciting. There are lots of very vivid verbs too, like volleyed and thundered and stormed, flashed and sabring. Shattered and sundered have the same effects later on in the poem. They’re strong, powerful words that convey a real sense of the ferocity of the battle. Look at what your mouth does when you say “Volleyed and thundered”. Two fricatives – V and Th – followed by a short vowel – O and U – and then a plosive end to both of them ‘D’. These are really noisy words that convey the cannon shooting through the air. Then you’ve got the sibilant fricatives of the next line, “stormed at with shot and shell” which also conveys the sound of war in ways that Wilfred Owen does too in his own poems, and you can find other poets making use of the sounds of language too, like Heaney and Hughes. This verse is a noisy verse, coupled with all those verbs and you’ve got a verbal equivalent of a battle recreation. Tennyson does his very best to recreate the experience. This is Dolby Surround Sound done by a Victorian poet.
It continues into stanza four with the same fricative-short vowel-plosive pattern. Just make these sounds…
Fffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff – aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa – sssssssssssssssssssshhhhhhhhhhhh-duh.
That D brings it to a right old thuddy stop. Still with the repetition and the sound and fury of war. I think that Tennyson really recreates the noise of battle with all of this. Couple that with the driving rhythm and you’ve got a powerful, noisy, active scene, briefly interrupted by the surprisingly calm “while all the world wondered” with all those breathy “wh” sounds, taking us out of the moment and stepping back to look at the battle before “plunged” plunges us right back into the scene again. Still, Tennyson continues with the sibilants of “sabre stroke”, “shattered” and “sundered” which also create the sounds of the battle, which carries us through into the next stanza with the repeated “stormed at with shot and shell”.
In some ways, it’s graphic, describing the battle, but in other ways it’s euphemistic, glossing over the deaths. It just says: ‘not the six hundred’ for how many rode back. “While horse and hero fell” covers what can only have been a bloody and brutal massacre of six hundred men led unnecessarily up a narrow corridor surrounded by the enemy.
For me, I think it is important that this poem is thin on flowery, poetry language and thick on rhetorical devices and ways to help us remember the poem: Tennyson wants it to be simple, he wants it to be clear. It would serve no purpose to be flowery. It relies on repetition, heavy rhythms, a rhyme that ties it all together, monosyllables, lots and lots of sound play with the alliteration. The effect is a poem that recreates some of the noise and fury of battle, Tennyson’s tribute to a large number of men who died in a pointless exercise. This is a great moment to talk about purpose and effect, or intention and effect, since Tennyson’s purpose is clear by the final stanza in the rhetoric of “When can their glory fade?” and the repeated imperative of “Honour the Light Brigade” with the final flourish of “Noble six hundred!” All that rhetoric, all that sound patterning… it creates something that is heroic and noble.
Now, whether you are affected in the ways Tennyson wants you to be is another matter. Yes, you remember the Light Brigade – we all do every time we read this poem. No doubt we honour the war dead – it’s unspeakable not to do so. But do you see them as heroes, or as courageous in the face of what can only have been the most pointless of “blunders”. This is where you need to think about the poem’s effect on you. Is that the same as the effect Tennyson intended?
Despite the ‘blunder’, Tennyson instructs us to ‘honour’ the men and their sacrifice, to remember their bravery and he finishes by calling them ‘noble’. Like Owen who includes an ‘O’, Tennyson includes an ‘O’ as well, but this is an expression of his strong emotion of pride and admiration, as compared to Owen’s ‘O’ of despair and depression. Their reputation and story is everywhere ‘all the world wonder’d’ – unlike the soldier who dies nameless in Futility. Tennyson’s question ‘when can their glory fade?’ is supposed to be answered with ‘never’ – their name and story will be everlasting. To some degree, this is true, though much of their fame is down to films, text and poems such as this one. The charge of the Light Brigade has become a by-word for bravery and heroism in the face of extreme adversity, although perhaps later audiences would think less of the bravery of the soldiers and more of the stupidity of those who sent them to war; we would perhaps think more of the senselessness of these men’s deaths.
What’s important here is that views have changed progressively since the poem was written. Whilst it was seen as a noble, valiant and heroic action, now the generals that allowed this to happen would come under heavy criticism. We see the stupidity and insanity of war; a contemporary audience would have seen something to celebrate and commemorate more than damn. It’s the same kind of heroic spirit that powers 300, the tale of 300 Spartan men who stood up to the invading Persian troops in the graphic novel and film of the same name. It’s seen as supreme sacrifice, dedication, determination, it’s how men fight and die for something that is more important than themselves. If you want another example, it’s Braveheart. Listen to Churchill’s speech following the Battle of Britain – it’s the same kind of heroism and valour we see there. It’s intended as a rousing reminder of the heroism and glory of dying for your country.
But is that what you take from it?
In the next article, I’ll look at Wilfred Owen’s poem, Exposure. It may be just over sixty years after The Charge of the Light Brigade, but I think you’ll see how very much poetry and our view of conflict changes in those sixty years.
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