An analysis of the language and ideas in The Charge of the Light Brigade

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.

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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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.

Revising for GCSE English Literature

Because I know there are a lot of worried parents and students out there, I’ve put together an e-book on the Conflict Literary Heritage poems. It runs at 20,000 words, 80-odd pages, and if you don’t know these seven poems inside out by then, nothing will help you! There are two sample essays in it,  and lots and lots of guidance about the poems including:

Futility by Wilfred Owen

next to of course god america i by E. E. Cummings

The Fallen Leaves by Margaret Postgate Cole

Come on, Come back by Stevie Smith

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Bayonet Charge by Ted Hughes

Hawk Roosting by Ted Hughes

It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a kindle – download Amazon’s Kindle for PC and you can read them on your computer!

Study guides for Conflict: Contemporary poems, and all the other clusters will follow!

Unlike other study guides which cover all the poems in the anthology, you can select which ones you want, so you’re not paying for a book that you won’t use properly. Also, because each one is focused, they’re much more detailed.

Click here to see the ebook on Amazon

Enjoy!

And if you have any feedback, let me know. I can add stuff, change stuff and take things out. The beauty of modern publishing!

If you want to read more about the AQA poetry anthology contemporary poetry, you can find my ebook here. Remember, you don’t need a kindle or e-reader to read it; just download the ‘Kindle for PC’ software. If you want an hour’s lesson with me (or even half an hour!) you can find all my details on my website. One hour via skype is £10.00 only! By the end, I promise you will OWN the poems!!