The Charge of the Light Brigade

The Charge of the Light Brigade

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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!
________________________

In 1854, British troops charged against Russian forces, during the Crimean War, over open terrain during the Battle of Balaclava. Tennyson viewed the charge as suicidal and it inspired the poem.

As you can see above, the poem is divided into six stanzas with a total of fifty-five lines. The number of lines per stanza is not consistent. The poem also lacks a consistent rhyme scheme.

Thematically, the poem is a historical account of an actual battle. It lionizes the courage, and love of country, of those who might have died to a man – all knowing in advance that death was likely.

The poet uses palilogy to begin. A palilogy is the repetition of a word or phrase for emphasis. Here we see “half a league” repeated three times. The emphasis creates a sense of anticipation for what lies ahead.

Tennyson also uses something called anaphora, which is the deliberate repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of several successive verses, clauses, or paragraphs. For example, the lines “Theirs not to” are a use of anaphora.

Let’s look at the individual stanzas.

In the first stanza, we are introduced to the subjects – a group of six hundred soldiers riding into an impossible situation. Tennyson describes the battleground as “the valley of Death.” This is an allusion to Psalm 23 and serves to provide a measure of hope for the subjects. As David wrote in the Psalm, “I shall not fear for thou art with me.”

In the second stanza, we learn that the soldiers are in this situation due to a mistake. Tennyson employs a rhetorical question to emphasize the courage of his subjects. Whether there by mistake or not, the soldiers intend to execute their mission. Arguably three of the most famous lines in literature are found in this stanza.

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

In the third stanza, we learn exactly how dire the situation is. Tennyson uses anaphora again here with the word “Cannon” and says that the Light Brigade rode into the jaws of Death and into the mouth of hell. Despite that, he tells us “they rode and well.”

In the fourth stanza, we learn that the world wonders why the soldiers are even participating in the charge at all. However, the soldiers do not question their duty. This emphasizes the bravery of the men while condemning the mistake that sent them there. We learn in this stanza that some of the men survived.

In the fifth stanza, we focus on the men who survived in spite of the odds. Tennyson calls back to the third stanza when he says they rode back from the jaws of Death and the mouth of hell.

In the final stanza, the poet calls on all to “honour” the men who rode so bravely. Tennyson does his part by writing a poem that is remembered well today – even if the details of the underlying subject matter have faded from public memory with the passage of time.

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