Rode the Six Hundred

A few thoughts on pronouns, context, the ’blunder’, and the language of hell and death in Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade.

They’re tiny little words, pronouns – often overlooked, or clumsily handled, under the pressure of the examination hall and timed conditions. They matter, though, and simple statements about them don’t need to be clumsy. Careful handling, and a close reading with a contextual backdrop, can reveal an insight into themes and attitudes. Pronouns can guide the analysis and offer an argument with which to push forward for access to the top grades.

Charge of the Light Brigade is one of just three poems in the cluster that doesn’t offer us anything in the way of first-person pronouns (the other two are Bayonet Charge and War Photographer, for interest’s sake. This would make for an interesting piece of research, in itself). And, of course, this makes sense. Tennyson wasn’t there, taking blundered orders in Crimea. He didn’t rub shoulders with those who perished. Earlier drafts of Charge included first-person pronouns, though:

We saw their sabres bare / Flash all at once in air

Tennyson edited this out, as it ‘“imperilled” the carefully achieved “respectful distance of the acknowledged non-combatant”’ (Shannon and Ricks, in Markovits, 2009). In this amendment, Tennyson avoids any claims of empathy. As Poet Laureate, he transformed the poem into one for the soldiers, without insulting them with imagined ‘real experience’. The repetition of the third person plural throughout Charge of the Light Brigade – ‘they’ ‘their/s’ ‘them’ appear 19 times in the poem – brings about a distance between the writer, the reader, and the soldiers. This feels respectful; we look on, awe-struck, at ‘they that had fought so well.’ A shift to first-person on lines such as this would arguably serve to alienate us from the soldiers. We weren’t there, so we can’t ever understand their lived experience. Unlike the other conflict poems in the anthology, Tennyson doesn’t give us the gritty, up-close-and-personal details of war, so we accept that we’re onlookers here and never meant to understand the trauma – we’re here to learn, absorb, and respect the sacrifices made.

If a concept could be onomatopoeic, then ‘blunder’ most certainly would be. This word appeared in the Times, on 13th November 1854, by their war correspondent, William Howard Russell. Charge of the Light Brigade was written after Tennyson read this editorial.

‘The British soldier will do his duty, even to certain death, and is not paralyzed by feeling that he is the victim of some hideous blunder’ (Russell, 1854)

Tennyson, perhaps appalled at such extensive loss of life being down to a ‘blunder’, included this in his final edit. Maybe this is the one place in the poem where Tennyson imparts some indication that he’s unimpressed with the higher ranks. He’s careful with placement of this word, though. There’s a clear structural separation from the fatal command in the first stanza:

‘”Forward, the Light Brigade!/Charge for the guns!” he said.’

and his employment of the word ‘blunder.’ As Poet Laureate, he treads a careful, perhaps political course here. Tennyson avoids direct blame by anonymising, with ‘he said’, the blunderer.

So, too, did the biblical phrase ‘valley of death’ appear in the Times article.  This line is often seized upon by GCSE students, bluntly stating the biblical allusion and doing little else with this information. The fact that a journalist uses this phrase indicates to us the horror the men faced. Discussion of the ‘valley of Death’ can be further enhanced by looking at the progression that takes place through the stanzas – from the ‘valley’, to the ‘jaws’ of death, and then to the ‘mouth of hell’. The imagery is stark, and the metaphor of their being enveloped, gripped, and consumed by hell is horrific. As the poem progresses, so does the inevitable fate of the soldiers.

The dactylic metre, in place up to the closing stanza, shows the unwavering, energised, tenacious manner in which the men rode. The outward and return journey, beautifully embodied in the opening two and closing two stanzas, take us through the slaughter, with ‘all that was left of them’ in the fifth stanza being positioned immediately before a reminder of ‘six hundred’ – the scale of the tragedy is not lessened here.

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Giving Voice to the Crimean War: Tennyson’s “Charge” and Maud’s Battle-song By Stefanie Markovitz. 2009

“The Charge of the Light Brigade”: The Creation of a Poem By Edgar Shannon and Christopher Ricks. Studies in Bibliography, Vol. 38 (1985), pp. 1-44

Featured Image – Charge of the Light Brigade from Wikimedia Commons, labelled for non-commercial reuse.