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The Charge of the Light Brigade: Power and Conflict Analysis

Tennyson wrote this poem in 1854 after reading a newspaper report of a battle involving British soldiers in the Crimean War. This war took place from 1853 to 1856 between Russia and an alliance including Britain.

In the battle, the Light Brigade attacked a valley that was heavily armed with Russian cannons and guns. This resulted from a mistaken order given after a miscommunication; they were supposed to go to a much less dangerous area. The Light Brigade attacked as commanded, but then had to retreat as they were fired at from all sides.

Poem

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!

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1854)

Poem summary

Six hundred soldiers ride into battle on horseback. They have been sent to this battle because of a mistaken command. The soldiers follow their orders despite the obvious danger. Even though they are shot at on all sides by cannons and guns, they continue to attack the enemy. They fight some gunners with sabres, but the enemy fire overwhelms them, forcing them to retreat. Not all the soldiers or horses make it out alive.

Tennyson celebrates the soldiers for their bravery. Even though they had been given a mistaken order and faced likely death, they continued to attack. This makes them heroes in his opinion.

Language

  • Tennyson uses gruesome personification to show the danger for the Light Brigade. He describes the valley they ride into as the “jaws of Death” and the “mouth of Hell”. The personification of “Death” and “Hell” shows they are doomed to suffer fatalities and awful injuries by riding into this valley. Using “mouth” and “jaws” makes it seem like a bloodthirsty monster ready to consume them.
  • Anaphora (repeating words at the beginning of a clause) is used several times in the poem. The third stanza begins with: “Cannon to the right of them, / Cannon to the left of them, / Cannon in front of them”. This shows the inescapability of the Russian attack.
  • Many lines begin with verbs, showing the relentless movement and action in the battle. We are told of the Light Brigade “Charging an army”, of them being “Plunged in the battery-smoke”, and “Storm’d at with shot and shell”.

Structure

The final lines of each stanza help to demonstrate what is happening to the Light Brigade:

  • The first three stanzas end with “Rode the six hundred” as they continue to charge bravely.
  • This then changes to “Not the six hundred” and “All that was left…of the six hundred”. It shows they are losing many men to the Russian artillery.
  • Finally, it ends on “Noble six hundred”. This demonstrates how their honour and bravery will never be forgotten.

Form

  • The poem is a third-person narrative account of the battle, mirroring the newspaper article Tennyson read about the story.
  • The poem has a regular rhythm and rhyme that gives it a fast pace. The first two lines have a rhythm that replicates the sound of galloping horses.

Themes

ThemeAnalysis
The reality of warTennyson shows the soldiers’ terrifying situation as they rode into the “valley of Death”. By calling it this, he allows the reader to imagine the horrors they experienced. Despite the terror of the situation, they attacked anyway.

He uses sound words to give a more vivid sense of the battle. The Light Brigade’s sabres “Flash’d”, while the cannons “Volley’d and thunder’d”. We also get the sibilance of “shot and shell” to show all the ammunition fired at them.  
The effect of conflictThe loss that comes about because of war is shown in the casualties. Tennyson doesn’t describe deaths explicitly but leaves it up to the reader’s imagination with “All that was left…of the six hundred”.

He also highlights the foolishness of the battle taking place. The attack only happened because “Someone had blunder’d” (made a mistake). The line “All the world wonder’d” shows people questioning the choices made in this battle.  
BraveryAlthough the attack was a mistake, Tennyson praises the Light Brigade for carrying out the attack anyway. He shows the soldiers’ sense of duty in “Theirs not to make reply,/ Theirs not to reason why”. This shows the duty of soldiers to follow orders even when there is a strong possibility of being killed.

In the final stanza, Tennyson asks, “When can their glory fade?” This shows that, though many lost their lives in the battle, he believes their bravery will last for eternity. He urges the reader to “Honour the Light Brigade” by way of appreciation for their courage.  

Key quotes to learn

QuoteWhy is it important?
“Theirs not to make reply/ Theirs not to reason why”This shows the soldier’s sense of duty. Even though the order to attack was a mistake, they knew they must carry it out anyway.
“Jaws of Death”The horror of the battlefield is shown in this personification. They would have faced likely death, making it terrifying.
“Noble six hundred”Tennyson leaves us with the message that we need to be thankful for the bravery of these soldiers, many of whom sacrificed their lives in the line of duty.

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