The Charge of the Light Brigade – Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Another poem from my childhood. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is Lord Tennyson’s narrative poem about a disastrous battle charge carried out by a company of British light cavalry during the Crimean war against Russia.

A light brigade is typically mounted on fast, light and unarmoured horses and armed to take part in minor skirmishes. However, due to miscommunication of orders down the chain of command, instead of going off on a mission to secure the guns in captured Turkish redoubts, they ended up charging head on into the direct fire of a fully engaged Russian artillery. Needless to say, the light brigade suffered some heavy casualties (pardon the pun) and their heroics recorded in this poem for posterity.

Reportedly, the news article that the poem is based upon, contained the clause “someone had blundered”. This line lent itself to a similar line in the poem and thus determined the metre of the poem as well – dactylic dimeter, in case you are interested. (Dactyl is yet another metric foot like the iamb, but having one stressed syllable followed two unstressed syllables. Since there are two of these metric feet per line, it is a dimeter.)

Tennyson uses a fairly irregular rhyme pattern in the poem with plenty of couplets, triplets and slant rhymes thrown in. It only adds to the drama of the poem. And what a drama it is!

From the get go, you really have the feeling of being in the thick of things, almost as if you were riding with the light brigade yourself. You can almost hear the thunder of the horses’ hooves as the six hundred (670 to be exact, but hey, you can’t rhyme that with anything!) ride into the “valley of Death”.

“Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.”

It was most assuredly a suicidal mission, but there was nary a word of dissent or doubt from the ranks as the charge command was given and the light brigade rode against withering direct fire to reach the Russian guns.

“Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.”

The above lines are probably heavily quoted by bosses around the world to get their minions to do their bidding, however ridiculous the demands may be. Memorably, they are used in the Steven Spielberg movie “Saving Private Ryan” by one of Tom Hanks’ men during an argument as to why the team had to go on a mission to save the eponymous soldier. But they indeed mark the cornerstone of discipline in any army.

Anyway, back to the poem. More drama follows as the poet describes how light brigade is bombarded with cannon fire left, right and centre.

“Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them”

But the soldiers still ride on bravely to near certain death, while fellow men fell by the wayside. Miraculously, a lot of them do manage to reach the Russian gunners, cutting down as many of them as possible, their light sabres (not the star wars ones) flashing in the air. They fought well,

“Charging an army, while
All the world wondered.”

And then the light brigade returns, albeit down a few hundreds of horses and men, while the cannons still “volleyed and thundered” after them.

“Stormed at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell.
They that had fought so well
Came through the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of hell”

Tennyson uses several phrases like “valley of Death”, “jaws of Death” and “mouth of hell” to describe the valley between two elevated positions that the light brigade rode through and back. Probably to reiterate to the reader, how hopeless a cause it had been, to go on such a reckless charge that could have had only one possible outcome.

In the end, a mere 195 men of the original 670 strong cavalry remained, along with their horses. The rest had all lost their mounts or were wounded, captured or killed in the calamitous charge.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

Bravery? Or foolishness, as some would argue. There is but a thin line between the two.

The Charge of the Light Brigade – Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Source: Wikipedia

I
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

II
“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

III
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.

IV
Flashed all their sabres bare,
Flashed as they turned in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wondered.
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right through the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reeled from the sabre stroke
Shattered and sundered.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

V
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell.
They that had fought so well
Came through the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

VI
When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

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