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University essay written in 2005, for an English Literature paper.   Graded A+ (95%).

Charge of the Light Brigade - Lord Alfred Tennyson

Brief for my essay plan:

My idea was to write a feature editorial article for publication in a magazine like The New Zealand Listener.   I wanted to discuss Lord Tennyson’s poem alongside the William Russell report that inspired the poem.   And beyond the links between those two pieces I wanted to bring in some mention of current day events, particularly the recent breaking news about the American soldier Pat Tillman, who died in friendly fire, instead of in an ambush as was first reported.

 

On the 9th December 1854 Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” was first published, in The Examiner.[1]   This poignant piece of verse would become an iconic poem from the poet laureate, and its cultural impact is still felt 150 years later.

 

Tennyson’s poem is often believed to be the sustaining force behind the continued legendary status given to the battle at Balaclava, but it was William Howard Russell’s newspaper report that inspired the poet to write this piece.   While many other battles had higher fatality rates (less than 120 men were killed), the legendary status of this battle continues largely due to the fact this was the first time the public was able to read a detailed account.[2]

 

The Crimean War was the first media war; for the first time reporters and photographers captured the events and it was due to this that public opinion became a part of war, such as it is still today.[3]   It took only three weeks for the story of the Light Brigade’s charge at Balaclava to reach Britain, and while this seems a long time today, that was not the case in the 1850s.

 

William Howard Russell was one of the world’s first war correspondents, and his blow-by-blow account of the battle gave the public a graphic illustration of the slaughter that took place that day.

 

The charge took place on 25th October 1854 in Balaclava, and Russell was there as a correspondent for The Times.[4]   His eyewitness account of the 25-minute long battle was published on the 14th November 1854, and the speed at which the story reached Britain made it impossible for the military to attempt to place their own spin on the events.[5]

 

For the first time the dreadful mismanagement and incompetence running rampant within the British military was revealed to the public of Victorian England.   And it was upon reading Russell’s account that Lord Tennyson was inspired to write this legendary poem.

 

The inspiration is so clearly evident as Tennyson has taken some quotes from Russell’s report and almost reproduced them verbatim in the poem.   In many instances the poem appears to be written from someone watching the battle unfold, just as Russell’s report was written.   As Russell’s prose unfolds from the beginning “at ten minutes past eleven, our Light Cavalry Brigade advanced”, Tennyson mirrors this in verse by starting at the beginning of the charge.[6] [7]

 

The poem also gives the impression of being an eyewitness account, referring to the flashing sabers, just as Russell does.   Tennyson sounds as if he is the one watching the battle as the brigade “plunged in the battery-smoke” which again incorporates Russell’s words “they flew into the smoke of the batteries”.

 

When the poet asks, “Was there a man dismay’d?” this again points to Russell who wrote, “We could scarcely believe the evidence of our senses”.   Russell was clearly dismayed at the events unfolding before him, and he continues to refer to that dismay before reporting on their unfailing devotion, “their desperate valour knew no bounds”.   Tennyson expresses this so poignantly, in words that have become possibly more famous than the poem as a whole: “Their’s not to reason why, Their’s but to do and die”.

 

Throughout the poem Tennyson continues to incorporate aspects of Russell’s report in other ways, including the lines, “some one had blundered”, and “the valley of death”.

 

The phrase “valley of death” reappears in several different ways throughout Tennyson’s poem, as it does in Russell’s account.   Other than just incorporating the reporter’s words Tennyson may also have been thinking of the biblical verses from the 23rd Psalm, The Lord is My Shepherd.[8]   The son of the rector, Tennyson would have been intimately familiar with that famous Psalm, and particularly the passage:

            Even though I walk

            Through the valley of the shadow of death

            I will fear no evil

            For you are with me.[9]

 

Whether Tennyson was referring to this I am unable to say, but considering the circumstances of the battle; the Brigade charging through a valley with the enemy shooting from each side, a Christian mind can not help but wonder at the number that survived that day.

 

Tennyson’s poem and Russell’s report were written in a time when the world was going through many changes, the military’s firepower was quickly changing from men on horses with sabers, to large artillery guns; and the public was hearing of the catastrophic effects these weapons of destruction were bringing with them, due to the growing media power.   Russell’s prose and Tennyson’s poem try to illustrate the confusion of the battle, and praise the Brigade while “mourning the appalling futility of the charge”.[10]

 

In the wars to come, the tone of the poets would change, seeing less heroism and more mistakes and futility.   Tennyson did point to the inherent mistakes made that caused such loss of life, but the overall impression from this poem is one of poignant praise.   In later years, following the atrocities of World War I, poets would express themselves in much sharper terms.

 

Tennyson’s “Their’s not to reason why, their’s but to do and die”, points to the poignancy of the unquestioning duty the cavalry illustrated by following what was surely a suicidal charge.[11]   Rudyard Kipling wrote, “If any ask us why we died, tell them ‘because our father’s lied’,” seems to express much more anger at the loss of life, even though the soldiers still did their duty.[12] [13]

 

The media plays a much larger role in wars and public opinion today, yet the military powers are sometimes able to spin the loss of life in positive lights.   The American soldier Pat Tillman was killed earlier this year in Afghanistan, and the military had no qualms about using his death to create a poster-boy of an All-American athlete turned soldier who died giving his all in the line of duty; in devotion to his country.[14]

 

It has taken seven months for the truth to come out; a Washington Post investigation revealing Tillman was killed by friendly fire, a result of “botched communications, wrong decisions and negligent shooting by inexperienced, pumped-up United States Rangers”.[15]

 

I am left to wonder, 150 years later, how the recent battles in Afghanistan and Iraq will be memorialised, how the loss of life will be remembered?   Will anyone write a poem as poignant as The Charge of the Light Brigade for the men and women who have lost their lives in a series of battles that many believe were folly to undertake?

Notes:

[1] Ian Lancashire.   ‘Notes on The Charge of the Light Brigade’.   University of Toronto Website.

[2] ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’.   Wikipedia.com.

[3] Sean Coughlan.   ‘Why the Charge of the Light Brigade still matters’.   BBC News Online Magazine.   (Subsequent references included in this text).

[4] ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’.   Wikipedia.com.   (Subsequent references included in this text).

[5] ‘William Howard Russell and the Crimean War’.   The Times Online.   (Subsequent references included in this text).  

[6] Ibid.

[7] The Charge of the Light Brigade.   The Examiner, Dec. 9, 1854. (Subsequent references included in this text).

[8] Psalm 23.   Holy Bible (New International Version).   (Subsequent references included in this text).

[9] Ibid.

[10] ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’.   Wikipedia.com.

[11] The Charge of the Light Brigade.   The Examiner, Dec. 9, 1854.

[12] The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (revised ed.)   Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, pg.198.

[13] Sean Coughlan.   ‘Why the Charge of the Light Brigade still matters’.

[14] ‘Shattered myth about an all-American hero’.   The Evening Post.   7th Dec, 2004.   (Subsequent references included in this text).

[15] Ibid.

 

 

Bibliography:

Books:

New International Version.   The Holy Bible.   Great Britain: Hodder & Stoughton, 1990 (2nd impression).

The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (revised ed.)   Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Tennyson, Alfred (Lord).   The Charge of the Light Brigade.   The Examiner, Dec. 9, 1854.

Newspaper Articles:

‘Shattered myth about an all-American hero’.   The Evening Post.   7th Dec, 2004.

Websites:

‘Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson’.   Wikipedia.com.   Internet WWW page, at URL:<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_Tennyson>   (Version current at 11th November 2004)

‘Charge of the Light Brigade’.   Wikipedia.com.   Internet WWW page, at URL: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charge_of_the_Light_Brigade>   (Version current at 11th November 2004)

Coughlan, Sean.   ‘Why the Charge of the Light Brigade still matters’.   BBC News Online Magazine.   Internet WWW page, at URL:  <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/3944699.stm>   (Version current at 11th November 2004)

Lancashire, Ian.   ‘Notes on The Charge of the Light Brigade’.   University of Toronto Website.   Internet WWW page, at URL:   <http://eir.library.utoronto.ca/rpo/display/poem2116.html>   (Version current at 11th November 2004)

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