The Charge of the Light Brigade
The 25th October 1854 marked the day of the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War plus one of the most famous and ill-fated events in British military history, the so called ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’. Great miscommunication between commanders led to an error in military execution, the Light Brigade were mistakenly ordered to charge, although heroically, to their deaths. There is debate over the success or failure of the attack; some reports describe it a successful operation of war, although misguided. It is argued that if the Light Brigade has been supported then control of the Russian held guns could have been taken. In addition, it was thought that the courage the British demonstrated frightened the Russians who never dared to face them again on an open battlefield. The Battle of Balaclava is widely seen as a defeat due to the great human loss, however a military historian could see it as a Pyrrhic victory. The British regiments at Balaclava were granted battle honour, victory being a pre-condition, due to the achievement and exhibited courage of the Charge of the Heavy Brigade, the Thin Red Line and the Charge of the Light Brigade. The charge is now set in legend, it has been immortalised in writing through the works of the famed ‘military correspondent’ Sir W.H. Russell and the then Poet Laureate Lord Alfred Tennyson. In this essay, I shall examine the extent to which Tennyson replicates Russell’s prose account in terms of its ideological, emotional and stylistic qualities.
Russell tells of the charge in vivid detail in his dispatches whilst Tennyson does so in his thundering verse in the poem ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’. Russell although very vivid at times, generally writes in the ‘Plain style’ also know as ‘Alfredian style’, perhaps due to his experience and knowledge or war. Tennyson on the other hand who was clearly influenced by Russell’s reports, displays a strong sense of patriotism; he uses imagery and figurative language to create a tone of exhilaration and a theme honoring the qualities of the Light Brigade. Both writers have admiration for the British Army and do glorify the nature of war, however there are underlying messages present in their work. The actions of the commanding officers are questioned and the theme of ‘blunder’ and unnecessary death sits quietly in the shadow of the heroic depiction of the British soldiers.
‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, first published in the December 9,1854 issue of the London Examiner became Tennyson’s most famous poem, written in commemoration of the brigade’s courage allegedly only minutes after reading Russell’s account in The Times. The poem was immediately popular and widely read, even reaching the troops back in Crimea where Tennyson sent thousands of copies to soldiers in Sevastapol for their inspiration1. Although one of his most famous poems it interesting to note that Tennyson did not want the poem to be associated with him as his typical work, many books on Tennyson barely even speak of the poem’s existence nevermind analyse it2. The poem consists of six stanzas and Tennyson uses such stylistic devices as rhyme and repetition to put forward his message. Much of the authority of the poem is in the movement and of the charge, in the unhurried pace of the repetitions which seems to dull individual feeling3. There is no regular stanza structure however a distinct rhyme scheme remains. There is a triplet in most stanzas (“shell, well, hell”), the order of which is always changing and at times is repeated by the same word (“them, them, them”). Anaphora is displayed in stanza three (“cannon, cannon, cannon”), which helps the poet build his battering verse by amplifying the stress on the first beat; there are similarities to this feature throughout the poem and the beginning of stanza 5 is identical. There is also an element of false rhyme between “blundered,” “thundered”, “sundered,” “wondered” and “hundred’ which...
Bibliography: Martin, Robert Bernard, Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), p.381.
Meller, Paul ,Jonathon 2010) The Development of Modern Propaganda in Britain, 1854-1902, Durham theses, Durham University. Available at Durham E-Theses Online: http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/246/ (p. 84.)
Thompson, Alastair W., The Poetry of Tennyson (London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986), p.214
Sims, Norman, ed. Literary Journalism in the Twentieth Century (NY/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990) p. 190.
Stearn, Roger T., ‘Russell, Sir William Howard (1820–1907)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2006 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/35889, accessed 23 Nov 2012]
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