Friday, 23 March 2012

The Charge of the LIght Brigade

The poem originated when Tennyson read an account of the battle in The Times  newspaper, published on November 14th 1854. It took place during the Crimean war, in what is now the Ukraine, near the town of Balaclava (and yes, that is where the name comes from--very practical headgear for those cold Russian winters!) As Tennyson says in his poem, over 600 men were involved, and nearly 250 of them were killed or severely wounded.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson
 When you consider what they were actually doing, it seems more amazing that any of them survived. They galloped down a blind valley, with heavy artillery on the left and right of them, towards an emplacement of guns. Amazingly, they did actually manage to attack the gunners when they got there, but in realistic terms the action was a disaster. There are different accounts as to why it was such a disaster--who planned it--involving isseus such as lack of communication, simple failure to realise the range of the guns, or simple mismanagement or hubris on the part of the generals. It was partly the reporting by William Howard Russell that made the charge sound as though it was a victory, or at least as though the men involved in it were noble rather than suicidal--many of the words and phrases that he uses are picked up by Tennyson, and used in the poem. Consier this passage from near the beginning, for instance:

They swept proudly past, glittering in the morning sun in all the pride and splendour of war. We could scarcely believe the evidence of our senses! Surely that handful of men are not going to charge an army in position? Alas! it was but too true - their desperate valour knew no bounds

The use of free indirect speech here (we can hear the peoples' thoughts without 'they said') suggests perhaps the use of 'all the world wondered' at the start of the poem.

The semantic field of the poem is also similar to the Times article, not just in simple terms but in terms of structure. Russell uses words such as 'heroic', 'noble', 'valour', 'spendour' and so on at the start of his acount, but also contrasts this with the effect at the end of the article where we have 'wounded' 'sad', 'dead and dying' instead, something that we see in the poem. Individual exaples of influence are present in the idea  of the sables 'flasing in air', drawn surely from the newspaper's 'Through the clouds of smoke we could see their sabres flashing as they rode up to the guns'  and the image of the 'mouth of hell/jaws of death' surely comes from: 'A more fearful spectacle was never witnessed than by those who, without the power to aid, beheld their heroic countrymen rushing to the arms of death. At the distance of 1200 yards the whole line of the enemy belched forth, from thirty iron mouths, a flood of smoke and flame'.

The above video gives you a sense of what the context of the charge was, and also has some interesting quotations from survivors of the battle.

When you're thinking about the poem, try and concentrate on some of the amazing sound effects that Tennyson creates. He is very fond of alliteration and assonance, and this is something that you should notice. You may also be struck with the rhythm of the poem, which seems to imitate the beat of hooves of a galloping horse. This metre (one strong beat, followed by two weaker beats) is called a dactylic rhythm--remember it, as I do, by imagining pterodactyls over the valley of death. Speaking of death, you might also like to notice the dead rhymes where a word is rhymed with itself, creating a relentless and deadening effect.

The repetition in the opem may remind you of a ballad--and it has something of this feel to it--there is certainly some incremental repetition, where we are gradually informed about more and more as the poem goes on, until, for instance, we finally find that not all the 'six hundred' come back..

1 comment:

  1. This has helped me understand this poem a lot more. Thank you! I think I'll do better on my English Literature exam tomorrow, now.