The Charge of the Light Brigade (poem)
"The Charge of the Light Brigade" is an 1854 narrative poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson about the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. He was the poet laureate of the United Kingdom at the time of the writing of the poem.
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Tennyson's poem, published December 9, 1854 in The Examiner, praises the Brigade, "When can their glory fade? O the wild charge they made!", while mourning the appalling futility of the charge: "Not tho' the soldier knew / Some one had blunder'd." According to his grandson Sir Charles Tennyson, Tennyson wrote the poem in only a few minutes after reading an account of the battle in The Times. As poet laureate he often wrote verses about public events. It immediately became hugely popular, even reaching the troops in the Crimea, where it was distributed in pamphlet form at the behest of Jane, Lady Franklin.
Each stanza tells a different part of the story, and there is a delicate balance between nobility and brutality throughout. Although Tennyson's subject is the nobleness of supporting one's country, and the poem's tone and hoofbeat cadences are rousing, it pulls no punches about the horror of war: "Cannon to right of them, /Cannon to left of them, / Cannon behind them / Volley'd & thunder'd". With "into the valley of Death" Tennyson works in resonance with "the valley of the shadow of Death" from Psalm 23, then and now a Psalm often read at funerals. Tennyson's Crimea does not offer the abstract tranquil death of the psalm but is instead predatory and menacing: "into the jaws of Death" and "into the mouth of Hell". The alliterative "Storm'd at with shot and shell" echoes the whistling of ball as the cavalry charge through it. After the fury of the charge, the final notes are gentle, reflective and laden with sorrow: "Then they rode back, but not / Not the six hundred".
Tennyson recited this poem onto a wax cylinder in 1890.
The actor Laurence Harvey recited the poem on The Ed Sullivan Show, and both he and Ed Sullivan presented, so Ed said, the actual bugle used in the charge to a British officer, who then blew the call. The clip is on the DVDs of the Rolling Stones appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show.
In the episode "Sacrifice of Angels" of Star Trek Deep Space Nine's sixth season, the third verse is recited by Chief O'Brien and Doctor Bashir as the Federation fleet is about to enter battle. When asked by a character unfamiliar with the poem how it ends, O'Brien answers, "You don't want to know."
In a response to the near destruction of Taffy 3 at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the padding in Admiral Nimitz's inquiry about Halsey's Battleship Task Force, "Where is TF 34?" was "The World Wonders." Some speculate that it is a reference to the poem and a comment on the heroic but near suicidal charge of the three destroyers, four destroyer escorts, and lightly armed bombers and fighters of Taffy 3 against the Japanese Center Force, made up of battleships, including the Yamato, heavy cruisers, light cruisers, and 11 destroyers.
The poem is also featured in the movie "The Blind Side (film)". Sean Tuohy recites the poem to Michael Oher, and Michael considers the meaning of the poem for his essay: "Didn't at least one of the six hundred guys think about giving up, and joining with the other side? I mean, valley of death that's pretty salty stuff. That's why courage, it's tricky. Should you always do what others tell you to do? Sometimes you might not even know why you're doing something. I mean any fool can have courage. But honor, that's the real reason for you to either do something or you don't. It's who you are and maybe who you want to be."
Based on a mistaken war story
The poem is based on a misunderstanding of the battle, in which the Light Brigade actually lost only 110 killed out of 666 men. A reporter for a London newspaper got it wrong, writing that it was a disastrous charge by the Light Brigade, according to Andrew Lambert, professor of naval history at King’s College London. The Brigade, sent into a nearly hopeless situation due to command confusion and incompetence, actually fought its way out of a Russian trap and got back to its own lines. Tennyson used that mistaken story as the basis for his poem, and refused to change it even after he learned of the mistake.
Rudyard Kipling's poem "The Last of the Light Brigade", written some forty years after the appearance of "The Charge of the Light Brigade", in 1891, focuses on the terrible hardships faced in old age by veterans of the Crimean War, as exemplified by the cavalry men of the Light Brigade, in an attempt to shame the British public into offering financial assistance.
James Bosworth, a station-master at Northam, was run over and killed by a railway engine. At the time of his death he was 70 years old and in his younger days was one of those who had fought at the Battle of Balaclava and survived. The English Illustrated Magazine states that he "surviv[ed] 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' at Balaclava". His epitaph as listed below referenced both his presence in the Battle of Balaclava and the poem.
- The English Illustrated Magazine article has a slightly different wording of the epitaph: It says "around flew fast" rather than "flew around fast"; "Balaclava plain" instead of "Balaclava's plain; and "past" instead of "passed"<
John Patrick quotes a line of the poem in his play, "The Curious Savage." Jeff, in Act I Scene 1 says, "Well -'Ours not to reason why--' I wonder why no one ever quotes the first line. It's 'Someone blundered.'"
- Brighton, Terry (2005), Hell Riders: The True Story of the Charge of the Light Brigade, Penguin
- Alfred Lord Tennyson, Poems, ed. Hallam Lord Tennyson and annotated by Alfred Lord Tennyson (London: Macmillan, 1908), II, 369.
- Hornfischer, James D. Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
- Box, Charles. "Elegies and Epitaphs: A Comprehensive Review of the Origin, Design, and Character of Monumental Inscriptions and of Other Necrological Literature". Retrieved 21 February 2014.
- "The English Illustrated Magazine, Volume 32". Retrieved 21 February 2014.
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