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What Is the Meaning of "The Charge of the Light Brigade"?


"Into the valley of Death rode the six hundred," writes Alfred Lord Tennyson in his "The Charge of the Light Brigade," a poem commemorating the hapless, hopeless charge of 600 British light cavalry against Russian troops on Balaclava Heights, October 25, 1864. Under the misdirection of the incompetent Lord Cardigan, the Light Brigade lost 157 men. Tennyson, however, used the occasion to create a poem of nationalistic pride and passion.

Guided by God?

Tennyson's work baffles historian Corelli Barnett, who wonders why he sentimentalizes such a monumental military blunder. Certainly Tennyson is unsparing in his praise: the Light Brigade rides into the "Valley of Death," an allusion to the biblical "valley of the Shadow" in Psalm 23. They are thus aligned with King David, going into spiritual darkness by faith. Tennyson confirms this with the line "boldly they rode as well ... into the mouth of hell." William Russell of the "London Times" caught Tennyson's fervor, speaking of the spectacle's "pride and splendor."

No Blame Game

Tennyson, writing six weeks after the fact, names no names to blame in his paean to bravery, saying only "Someone had blunder'd." He disregards the negligence of such commanding figures as Lord Raglan and Lord Lucan, who mutually confirmed the order to attack without knowledge of the extent of the Russian forces. Tennyson immediately shifts from blaming the commanders to commending the fixed and unalterable obedience of the brigade: "Theirs not to reason why / Theirs but to do and die." This commendation sets the tone of the entire work.

Bravery Exalted

From the second stanza on, the poem is an exaltation of bravery, depicting the men with "sabres bare ... Charging an army, while / all the world wonder'd." Tennyson rewrites history as "Cossack and Russian reel'd from the sabre-stroke" and the Light Brigade seems to return victorious: "They that had fought so well ... Back from the mouth of hell." Tennyson ends with a command to the reader to feel triumphant pride: "Honour the charge they made! / Honour the Light Brigade, / Noble six hundred!" His tone is exultant; there is no hint of irony.

The Meaning and the Nameless Hero

The meaning of "The Charge of the Light Brigade" is to honor the cavalrymen who fell, rather than explore the reasons for the event. The line, "Theirs not to reason why," includes the poem's readers. Tennyson also indirectly honors the one soldier who could be called Balaclava's hero, Captain Nolan, who brought Lord Raglan's charging orders to Lord Lucan. Newsman William Russell, Nolan's good friend, honored the brigade's bravery in the "London Times," a tribute that inspired Tennyson. Tennyson pays Nolan and soldiers like him a nameless, deathless tribute with his monumental poem.

About the Author

Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.

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