Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade,’ is one of the most famous poems in the English language.
Written after Tennyson read an account of a battle during the Crimean War, the poem celebrates the patriotism of the many brave English soldiers who died in the 1854 conflict.
Alfred Lord Tennyson
Born in 1809, British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson grew up in a rectory in Somersby, Lincolnshire. One of twelve children, Tennyson’s childhood was unhappy. His father, a clergyman, was sometimes violent, and some of Tennyson’s siblings were institutionalized for alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illness. As a child, Tennyson seemed to find relief from his family by writing poems. Later, while studying at Cambridge, Tennyson won an award for his poetry.
In 1850, Queen Victoria named him Poet Laureate. A poet laureate is an officially appointed poet that sometimes composes poems for special events. Tennyson remained the foremost Victorian poet until his death in 1892.
Tennyson’s poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade, is based on events from the Battle of Balaclava that occurred near the Black Sea in 1854. This battle of the Crimean War, in which England, France and the Ottoman Empire fought against Russia, immediately captured Tennyson’s interest when he read a newspaper article detailing British casualties at Balaclava.
The many dead and wounded English soldiers were the result of a tragic misunderstanding about the location of Russian arms. Mistakenly informed that these arms were in a valley, the British troops descended and became easy targets of the Russians. As a result, almost half of the Light Brigade died.
Summary ; Structure
The plot of The Charge of the Light Brigade provides only a bare outline of the battle. Still, Tennyson gives us just enough details in the poem’s 6 stanzas to make us realize that the British command has blundered, and that the soldiers fight valiantly, even as many are being torn apart by cannon balls.As the poem opens, the Light Brigade’s leader commands hundreds of his soldiers to keep riding towards the lowlands until they reach and can seize Russian firearms. The troops are, as is mentioned three times in the first stanza, half a league away from finding their enemy’s firearms.
Unaware that one of their commanders has made a mistake, the soldiers calmly ride forward but as they reach the lowlands, the Light Brigade soldiers are attacked. As cannons sound, the English hold their swords high and fight on. In the smoky air caused by the cannons, the soldiers bravely fight on, managing to run their swords into the flesh of some of their Russian enemies. The soldiers soon find they cannot withstand the Russian cannons any longer, as their horses and friends lie wounded or lifeless on the ground, the surviving soldiers watch their enemies retreat, unaware that their Light Brigade will be remembered as glorious.Interestingly, Tennyson evokes the complexity of battle and the glory of the Light Brigade by providing a very simple structure for his poem. Not only does he limit the length of his poem to six short stanzas, but he also presents short lines in each stanza.
These short lines tend to follow a pattern, known as dactylic dimeter. In this structure, there are six syllables per line: two stressed and four unstressed syllables.For example, we find dactylic dimeter in:’flash’d all their sabres bare.’Describing the English attack on the Russians, this line reveals two stressed syllables, flash’d and the ‘sa’ in sabres, while the other four syllables are unstressed.
Dactylic dimeter is called a falling meter because the first syllable in each dactyl, a poetic ‘foot’ made up of one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables is accentuated, while the other two, are unaccentuated.This falling meter works very well in Tennyson’s poem to emphasize the falling of the British soldiers as they drop, wounded or dead, to the ground.
Analysis ; Meaning
The patriotism exhibited by the courageous soldiers of the Light Brigade comes through as an important theme in Tennyson’s poem. Written in 1854 while Tennyson was Poet Laureate of England, The Charge of the Light Brigade introduces the sense of glory by evoking the Bible in the first stanza.
Tennyson’s narrator writes of the soldier’s decent into the Valley of Death, referencing the famous line ‘the valley of the shadow of Death,’ from Psalm 23. By presenting this Biblical allusion, the narrator seems to elevate a simple military maneuver to a transcendent occurrence that transforms the soldiers from ordinary to extraordinary men.These exceptional men of the Light Brigade, whom Tennyson repeatedly calls the 600, are unperturbed as they ride towards their fate. Ideal soldiers, they do not reason why, instead, they simply do and die. Heightening the impression of the soldiers’ courage, Tennyson devotes six lines of the poem to the positions of the cannons aimed at the Brigade. These cannons come at the British soldiers from every direction.
Still, the brave men fight on, despite the barrage of shot and shell.In the final stanza of the poem, the narrator poses the rhetorical question, ‘when can their glory fade?’ Never, we assume. The narrator implores us twice in the final lines of the poem to honor the Light Brigade so that their glory will last for a very long time.
Despite his unhappy childhood, Alfred Lord Tennyson grew up to become an extremely successful British poet. Tennyson was not only named Poet Laureate under Queen Victoria, but he was also considered one of the best loved poets of his era.Tennyson’s fame has endured; among his most popular poems is The Charge of the Light Brigade, a work that presents the events of the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War.
This battle resulted in many British casualties. To underscore the tragedy of the battle, Tennyson uses dactylic dimeter, a falling meter in his poem.He also repeats key words and phrases to emphasize the extraordinary courage of the English soldiers, as well as a Biblical allusion to heighten the spiritual impact of the poem.
The spirituality in The Charge of the Light Brigade promotes Tennyson’s important theme of patriotism, by elevating a relatively small battle to one that is glorious and is fought by soldiers intent on maintaining patriotic ideals.
Key Information About the Poem
- The Charge of the Light Brigade was written by Alfred Lord Tennyson
- Tennyson based the poem on the real Battle of Balaclava
- Almost half of the soldiers in the battle died
- The casualty rate was high because the British miscalculated the location of Russian arms
- The poem contains six stanzas
- Tennyson uses a dactylic dimeter structure in the poem; six syllables per line, two stressed and four unstressed
- Patriotism is an important theme in the poem
After finishing this lesson, you should be able to:
- Identify Alfred Lord Tennyson and a few facts about his life
- Summarize and analyze the poem The Charge of the Light Brigade
- Explain the dactylic dimeter structure of the poem