in A Level, AQA, English Literature, Poetry

‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ is such a perfect, powerful poem – it’s full of strength and momentum, that captures the movement of horses as they charge forwards into battle.

The atmosphere is honourable, brave, and admirable. Yet, the context was that these soldiers were charging into a battle they had no hope of winning, charging to almost certain death on orders that had been given by someone higher up who ‘blundered’, made a mistake that cost hundreds of lives.

Tennyson acknowledges the mistake of the orders, without diminishing his respect for the soldiers that fought bravely against all odds in the face of cannons and certain death. In some ways, we could say that he turns a defeat into a victory, concluding that these soldiers are a testament to their nation’s character and that we should all honour and remember them and their noble sacrifice. It’s a complex poem, asking us to question our beliefs about war – are the soldiers stupid for following orders that didn’t make sense, or honourable because they fight with strength and conviction even when there’s almost no hope? Read the poem and decide for yourself.


This analysis is tailored towards GCSE / iGCSE, A Level and above (age 14+). It’s particularly useful for the following exam boards: AQA, CIE, OCR, WJEC, Edexcel, CCEA.

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Charge of the Light Brigade

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!

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Check out what other poems we have analysed from the AQA Power and Conflict Poetry Anthology by clicking here.

VOCABULARY 


Charge – in this case, a noun meaning ‘the act of charging forward, such as on horseback in battle’ 
The Light Brigade – the British light cavalry force, soldiers on horseback who rode into battle using lances (long, sharp poles) and sabers (swords) for weapons. They were called ‘light’ because they wore almost no armour, as being light-weighted made them faster on the horses. (See context for more info) 
League – in old-fashioned terms, a league is a way of measuring distance (one league = roughly 3 miles) 
Dismayed – upset, saddened, disheartened 
Blundered – made a mistake 
Make reply – to answer back 
To reason why – to think logically about the reasons why something happened 
But – only 
Volleyed – launched projectiles (in this case cannonballs)  
Shot and shell – cannon balls (spherical projections) and exploding projectiles called ‘shells’ – both types of artillery are used to shoot at targets – either people, other weapons, or buildings – from a long-range
Gunners – a member of the armed forces who shoots guns 
Cossacks – EastSlavic people known for having a warrior culture, Cossacks live mostly in the lower parts of Russia and Ukraine
Battery-smoke – a battery is a large number of guns grouped together, so battery-smoke is the cloud of smoke that these guns make when fired
Reeled – staggering back violently

STORY/SUMMARY

(Stanza 1) The Light Brigade charge forward on their horses, all six hundred men riding closer and closer to the ‘jaws of Death’ as they are riding into a battle they cannot hope to win – a man, presumably a captain, shouts “Forward, the light brigade! Charge towards the enemy’s guns!”. 

(Stanza 2) The speaker asks, was anyone afraid or thinking of running away? No, even though the soldiers knew someone must have made a mistake with their orders as they were clearly no match for the cannons. It was not the soldiers’ place to answer back to the captain, nor was it their place to think about the reason behind the orders: They were just there to do what they were told, and die. So, they rode into the valley of Death.

(Stanza 3) They faced cannons and explosives all around: to the right, left, and in front of them, making huge thundering noises as they flew at the soldiers. Though they were stormed, they rode onwards bravely – into the jaws of Death, Into the mouth of hell. 

(Stanza 4) The soldiers raised their sabres, which flashed in the light, they attacked the gunners and broke through the ranks of Cossacks and Russians, fighting them the whole time – plunging through the smoke of the cannons, striking them with their sabres. The whole world was stunned at their brave efforts. Then, they rode back again – but not the whole six hundred. 

(Stanza 5) They faced cannons and explosives all around: to the right, left, and in front of them, making huge thundering noises as they flew at the soldiers (a repetition of how it felt to charge into battle as they ride away). While this was happening, the horses and the heroes that rode them fell down dead. The soldiers that had fought so well, whatever was left of them, rode out of the jaws of Death, back from the mouth of hell. 

(Stanza 6) Is it possible for the heroism and glory of these men to ever fade? Oh, it was such a wild charge that they made that the whole world was impressed by their bravery. We should all honour the charge they made, and honour the Light Brigade. They were a noble group of six hundred. 

SPEAKER/VOICE

The speaker is an omniscient narrator who tells the story of the Light Brigade with respect and awe for the bravery that the men showed in the face of almost certain death. His tone is laudatory as he praises the soldiers and their strength, even their determination to follow orders and sacrifice their lives for their country. There are some conflicting feelings in the poem, however, as Tennyson acknowledges that ‘someone had blundered’ – definitely somebody higher up in the army had made the wrong decision to send such lightly armored men into battle with powerful cannons and guns, when they only had swords and lances. In Tennyson’s opinion, this only enhances the impressiveness of the charge that they made, and the fact that some of them survived is even more astounding – he asks all his readers as a nation to ‘honour’ these men and their extreme bravery. 

LANGUAGE 

Anaphora of ‘Half a league’, which is repeated at the beginning of lines and clauses, creates a rhythm that sounds like the hooves of horses as they charge – it emphasises the unwavering determination and bravery of the soldiers, there was no doubt or hesitation in their minds as they followed orders to charge. 

Hypophora – “Was there a man dismayed? / Not though the soldier knew/ Someone had blundered.” – the use of rhetorical devices such as hypophora (answering a rhetorical question) create a sense of greatness and glory, as these are typically used in great persuasive speeches and political situations – they have the effect of persuading us that the soldiers died a noble death and that they should be honoured rather than dismissed or forgotten. Yet, we could say that there’s an underlying tentativeness to the line, that perhaps Tennyson is aware of the irony that these men gave their lives on false or erroneous orders, perhaps there is an implication underneath the sense of glory that something is also wrong with the structure of war, where the errors of a superior command can result in the deaths of many lives who are taught to just blindly follow orders without question. Being a poet laureate at the time (see the context for more info), Tennyson undoubtedly had to persuade his readers that this was ultimately an act of honour and bravery rather than stupidity, even though the orders made no sense and the battle was lost. 

Assonance – ‘onward’ / ‘blundered’ / ‘thundered’ – many of the lines half-rhyme with each other, creating a rhythm and momentum that propels the story forwards and also imitates the underlying sound of charging horses as they gallop and their hooves hit the ground.

Parallelism – ‘Cannon to left..right..in front of them’ – the repeated sections of the poems that describe the attack on the Light Brigade repeat the words ‘cannon’ with different prepositions to show how the soldiers were surrounded on all sides and overwhelmed by the attack. Furthermore,  the dynamic verbs ‘volleyed’ and ‘thundered’ emphasise the brute force of the attack and the comparative powerlessness of the British soldiers. 

Semantic field of praise – ‘honour’, ‘noble’, ‘glory’ – a range of abstract nouns and adjectives are used to emphasise the point that these men were brilliant, brave, daring, loyal to their country, and selflessly giving up their lives. 

STRUCTURE/FORM 

Narrative/ballad form – the poem has a narrative structure as it tells a story, the repetitive stanzas (six stanzas to represent the six hundred men that fought in battle). There is a slight irregularity to the meter and rhythm, however, perhaps to represent the chaos of battle. A ballad is a poem that uses short stanzas to tell a story, often with a regular or predictable meter and rhyme scheme in order to create a sense of familiarity. The rhyme scheme is also irregular here, however, which implies perhaps a feeling of uncertainty or difficulty underneath the regular forward motion of the charge – perhaps also juxtaposing the straight line of the soldiers’ charge forwards with the erratic and irregular cannons and shells that were fired at them as they rode. 

Triplet – ‘Theirs not to make reply, / Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die.’ – some of the lines contain rhyming couplets or even triplets – three lines that mirror each other through parallel rhythms and end rhymes. Here, the end rhymes ‘reply’, ‘why’ and ‘die’ emphasise the point that there were no options available to the soldiers – it was not their place to question or defy orders, death was the only possible choice for them in this instance as their honour and sense of duty to their country was far greater than how much they cared about their own lives. 

CONTEXT 

The poem is a narrative poem written in 1854; during the Victorian era when the British Empire had expanded across the world and many Victorians considered themselves to be at the height of civilization and more advanced than other cultures and societies. As a narrative poem, it tells the story of a battle in the Crimean War, a conflict between Russia and an alliance of Great Britain, France, Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire. On the 15th October 1854, the Light Brigade received a message to attack the Russian forces, and though they knew it was an impossible mission (with them only having swords to fight against the Russians’ guns), they attacked anyway – of the 666 men that rode into battle, 271 were injured, killed or captured – over 1/3 of the soldiers in total. The battle itself only lasted 20 minutes as the Light Brigade was so clearly going to lose against the guns and cannons – signs of industrialisation and development through the 1800s. The Crimean War was one of the first wars to use machinery and new technologies, so soldiers such as the Light Brigade had no idea what to expect when they rose into battle. 

Unidentified performer on horseback in full British uniform portraying Lord Cardigan in the 1912 Edison film The Charge of the Light Brigade; scene just before Cardigan leads the charge of British cavalry against Russian forces near Balaklava in the Crimea, 1854; mounted troops in background are United States Army cavalry from Fort D. A. Russell in Wyoming who served as extras in film; the unidentified performer portraying Cardigan may have also been a trooper from Fort Russell; this image is a screenshot image from Edison’s 1916 reprint of the film made from 1912 master negatives and part the company’s rerelease of the film in 1916 and distributed again to United States and foreign theaters. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

The poem was written only six weeks after the event was publicized in British newspapers, meaning that it was still very fresh in people’s minds. 

Alfred Lord Tennyson was poet laureate at the time of writing – this means it was his job and duty to write as the official poet of Great Britain, to speak on the subject of the British Empire and create poems that portrayed the country in a positive light. For this reason, the poem is surprisingly positive in tone, when many poets are known to criticise war and the way in which the men giving orders is not the same as those dying, here Tennyson does not praise the captains but he does show his deepest respect and reverence for the brave soldiers who fought against all odds. 

Biblical allusion – ‘The valley of Death’/ ‘jaws of Death’ / ‘mouth of Hell’ – Victorians were all Christian and educated in the teachings of the Bible, so they would have been fully aware that the phrase ‘the valley of Death’ is a direct reference or allusion to Psalm 23 in the Book of Psalms: ‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.’. The phrase metaphorically means that even though we experience darkness and death in life, we should not be afraid because God is always by our side as a protective and comforting presence. This perhaps suggests that Tennyson felt there was something godly or spiritual about the miraculous charge of the light brigade, the bravery of the soldiers, and the fact that some of them survived. He is certainly suggesting that these men died for an altruistic cause – not for themselves, but for their nation, 

ATTITUDES

War is sometimes necessary – particularly in previous eras (before the First and Second World Wars), there was a common belief that war was sometimes important or necessary, in order to fight to preserve or spread strong beliefs and cultures – in the case of the Crimean War, it started because of political reasons to do with the expansion of the Russian Empire and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. None of the largest countries involved directly attacked one another or wanted to fight; they were forced to because Russia needed Turkey (the Ottomans) to be tied to them, whereas Europeans needed Turkey to be free from Russian control for their own sake. 

Bravery in the face of defeat is a kind of victory in itself – we are told that ‘All the world wondered’ at the amazing bravery that was showed by the soldiers, Tennyson rules that in a sense the honour of the men is what will be remembered most, as it is stronger than the ‘blunder’ made by the captains when they sent the wrong orders and stronger even than the fact that they were defeated in battle. The poem tries to persuade us that soldiers who die for their country should always be honoured, no matter whether people agree with the cause because they believed in it and they gave their lives for it. 

There is also a suggestion that the Russian army was dishonourable in their use of machinery rather than people to fight the war, and so even though they won the battle the fact that they used cannons and attacked at long range is arguably cowardly as it implies they were not brave enough to fight man to man with the British soldiers. 

Finally, as Tennyson was a highly religious poet writing for a Christian Victorian audience, he also demonstrates the attitude that God favours those who are bold and selfless – this sense of heroism is in some ways classical – drawing on Ancient Greek and Roman traditions of the hero in its descriptions of the ‘wild charge’ of battle and the bravery of the ‘noble’ soldiers, it also blends this with biblical allusions and spiritual phrasing (‘valley of Death’ / ‘mouth of hell’) to imply that God was on the side of the Light Brigade and He approved of their efforts and will reward them justly in heaven, as well as the fact that they will be honoured and remembered on earth.

THEMES 

  • Nationalism and Patriotism 
  • War 
  • Hierarchy and Power 
  • Spirituality 
  • Death 
  • Honour 
  • Glory 
  • Heroism 
  • Industrialisation 

ESSAY QUESTIONS 


Comparative essay:
Compare how poets present war and death in ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ and one other poem of your choice from the anthology. 
Compare the presentation of honour and fame in ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ with one other poem from the collection. 
Compare the ways in which poets present attitudes to war in ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ and one other poem from your anthology. 
Note: these kinds of essay questions are suitable for those studying a mixed collection of poetry, such as for the AQA GCSE Power and Conflict or CCEA GCSE exams. 

Tennyson essay: 
Discuss the ways in which Tennyson presents the idea of national pride in his poetry, using ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’. 
How far do you agree that Tennyson’s poetry is infused with spirituality? Refer to ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ and two other poems in your answer. 
Examine the ways in which Tennyson portrays death and remembrance in ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ and two other poems of your choice. 
Note: these kinds of essay questions are suitable for those studying a full collection of Tennyson’s poetry, such as for A Level Literature exams. 


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