Robert Stein, '01
Cedar Crest College
An Explication of "The Charge of the Light Brigade"
The charge of the Light Brigade was a disastrous event that occurred on October 25, 1854 during the Crimean War. On December 2, 1854, Tennyson wrote the poem in response to an article that he read about the incident only minutes before. In my first few readings of the poem, I thought his only purpose was to memorialize the bravery and heroism of the British soldiers that died during the attack. After doing more research on this incident and several closer readings of the work, I began to realize the use of double entendres that Tennyson employed in several places within in the poem and the tone of the poem in general. I now believe that Tennyson had two purposes for writing this poem. As stated earlier, I believe his first purpose was to memorialize those who so bravely gave their lives that day; his second purpose, however, was to show the consequence of blind obedience to another person strictly based on position of authority.
The poem is written in short, repetitive lines that resemble a military cadence, and as you read them aloud you seem feel the movement of the troops as they took up their position to prepare for the charge. There are six stanzas that vary in length of six to twelve lines. I believe Tennyson deliberately varied the length of the stanzas in order to capture the atmosphere of confusion during this encounter and for particular emphasis during the various phases of the event. The imagery within each stanza also helps the reader to paint a mental picture of what was occurring in each phase and the feelings of those involved in the incident.
In the first stanza, in lines 1 and 2, the phrase "half a league" is repeated three times. The word "league" is Tennyson's first use of a double entendre word. It refers to the actual distance the Light Brigade was moved as they got into position, but it also implies that the cavalry was there alone. Although the leader of the Light Brigade could not see the French infantry that was to support his men, he was assured that they were to their left flank. The Light Brigade was now positioned in the valley, which Tennyson refers to as the valley of Death, giving the reader an image of the fate of the troops. In lines 5 and 6, the command to charge is given and the reader can picture the troops springing to action.
In the second stanza, the first line repeats the order given earlier and is followed in line 10 by the first of two questions the reader is asked in the poem, "Was there a man dismayed?" This question caused me to hesitate and to try to understand what was being asked and why. On the field that day, there was a moment of hesitation there as well, because the leader of the Light Brigade questioned the order delivered to him by the aide-de-camp. Though he was sure the order was a large mistake, he was assured that these orders were given by the general and that he would receive the full support of the French Infantry and the Heavy Brigade. Furthermore, he was reminded that not to obey would be deliberate defiance of authority and likely to result in disciplinary action. In lines 11 and 12 Tennyson captures the futility and hopelessness that must have been felt by the leader that day, but he also causes the reader to question why one should keep silent and obey a directive that is wrong simply because it was issued by someone in a position of authority. Lines 13-15 are probably the most widely known lines of this poem:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
In the third stanza, in lines 18 to 22 the reader can "see" and "hear" the cannon on their right, left and in front of them as the brigade commences the charge. In spite of the dangers they faced, the troops boldly continued moving forward into the "jaws of Death" and "the mouth of Hell."
In the fourth stanza, in lines 27 to the beginning of line 30, the reader is given the image of the troops' flashing sabres as they closed upon the Russian enemy lines. In line 31 Tennyson uses another phrase that ends with a double entendre, "while All the world wondered," causing the reader to pause and give thought. As the Light Brigade begins to attack, Tennyson has not only the eyes of the British, French, Turkish and Russian troops on these 600 men, but of the whole world as well. The word "wonder" can mean awe and admiration, but it can also mean doubt and puzzlement. As they realize their predicament, the troops turn and ride back in a hasty and unorganized retreat, but not the 600 that rode in originally. That day, there were 503 men killed within a few minutes.
Lines 39-43 at the beginning of stanza five are the same as lines 18 to 22 that open stanza three, with the exception that now the cannons are behind them as they make their retreat instead of in front of them as when they began the charge. Lines 44-47 give the reader a much different picture than lines 23-25 did. Instead of boldly charging toward their enemy they are now making a hasty retreat while the enemy continues shooting men and horses. In lines 48 and 49 we are told not all of them made it back. Only 197 men survived of the 700 men that charged that day. The number 600 was based on an error in the original newspaper article printed on November 14, 1854. The number was corrected to 700 in a later article, but Tennyson decided to keep the number 600 because it worked with the meter of the poem, according to a letter written by Emily Tennyson to John Forster on December 6, 1854 (See Letters of Lord Alfred Tennyson, vol. 1851-1870, ed. Cecil Y. Lang and Edgar F. Shannon, Jr., Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987).
The sixth stanza opens with Tennyson's second question, "When can their glory fade?" Perhaps he is asking this question because he fears that these men and this incident may not be remembered or worse yet, that they will be remembered as men that failed. This dual perception is implied in lines 50 and 51 where he again uses two words that appear to be used as double entendres. In line 50 he uses "wild" to refer to their charge, which can mean it was a fantastic charge or a disorderly charge. In line 50 he repeats and uses the word "wonder" in a manner similar to his use of it in line 31. According to Dr. LuAnn McCracken Fletcher, a third possibility for the question may be that Tennyson may be saying, "When can we stop glorifying actions like this?" - even as we honor the men that engaged in this action. He concludes in lines 53-55 that all of the men should be honored for their actions that day, both those that gave their lives in the line of duty and perhaps more importantly, those that chose to retreat when they realized that "someone had blundered."