GCSE poem analysis: The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Esme

May 10, 2017

What is it about?

Tennyson wrote The Charge of the Light Brigade after reading a newspaper report about the Battle of Balaclava in 1854.  

At the time Britain and France were at war with Russia and fighting over control of Crimea (the same region that Russia recently controversially re-occupied) – hence the name ‘The Crimean War’.  It was one of the first wars in which the public were able to read regular updates in the newspaper, due to the recent development of the electric telegraph network, and journalists had been sent to report on the events.  

On the 25th October 1854, 670 cavalrymen and officers were given an ambiguous order to attack Russian troops armed with cannons. Tennyson relates how the cavalry (the ‘Light Brigade’) attacked, showing heroic bravery and discipline, despite severe artillery fire from three directions.  They failed to defeat the gunners and were forced to retreat, losing more than two hundred killed outright, wounded or captured.

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson

1.
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.

2.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd:
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.

3.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them<
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

4.
Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air,
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel'd from the sabre stroke
Shatter'd and sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

5.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

6.
When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.

Purpose
Tennyson was Poet Laureate at the time of writing and at the height of his career and popularity.  He later told how he had read the news about the Battle of Balaclava in the Times, which had included the phrase 'Someone had blundered', which had established the rhythm and started him writing the poem, which he mainly wrote in a single effort in a few minutes.

gcse-poem-analysis-the-charge-of-the-light-brigade

He was used to producing 'occasional' pieces of verse to mark important occasions and wanted to pay respect to the military personnel who had lost their lives.  This makes The Charge of the Light Brigade partly an unusual elegy as well as an excellent narrative poem - and a piece that has remained popular in performance.

In fact, Tennyson himself made an early recording of the poem in 1890, which survives.  Just don't expect great quality!

Speech
Tennyson includes speech as part of his poem, He asks rhetorical questions, giving a strong impression of his own perspective and then gives direct instructions (using a repeated imperative verb, 'Honour…!').  This means that the poem is always associated with him as a poet, and it did become one of his most famous pieces: just short enough to memorise and exciting and patriotic enough to teach to children.

You could compare it to another of his very successful military pieces, 'The Revenge - A Ballad of the Fleet'

Imagery
There is relatively little imagery used, but what Tennyson does choose are powerful, 'heavy' phrases.  The 'valley of Death' is an echo of biblical language, specifically the 'valley of the shadow of death' in Psalm 23.  This borrows the serious tone of religious language as well as the morbid reference in describing the actual valley that the cavalry rode through.

He describes their destination as the 'jaws of Death', implying the jaws of a trap or monster, and this is echoed by the phrase 'mouth of Hell'.

Form
You can't read The Charge of the Light Brigade without quickly noticing the powerful rhythm.  You might find it reminiscent of horses' hooves or military drums, but it changes pace and pattern through the stanzas and between the lines.  However, the poem is written in front-stressed metre - either trochees or dactyls - unlike the majority of English poetry which is written in iambic or 'rising' metre.

Front-stressed patterns start with a heavy beat (like 'Boldly' or 'Alphabet'), which can help a poem sound rhythmically regular even when the number of syllables changes.  Another important 19th century poem that used front-stressed (or 'falling') metres was Longfellow's Hiawatha - you might notice some similarity.

Repetition is absolutely key to making this rhythm work as well as having a relentless forward motion that mimics the charge of the cavalry.  Each time Tennyson lists the positions of the cannon, he builds the idea of the surrounding groups of artillery, making them seem overwhelming and omnipresent.

The Charge of the Light Brigade has 6 stanzas of changing length: Tennyson did not create a fixed shape but wrote quickly, lengthening and shortening his verses to emphasise the ideas and words he wanted at the forefront of his reader's mind.  And he certainly succeeded!  For a few minutes' work he managed to create something that has been quoted for more than 150 years and has helped shape British culture.

trochee - a two-syllable pattern with a stressed beat followed by an unstressed (eg 'Boldly')

dactyl - a three-syllable pattern with a stressed beat followed by two unstressed, usually quicker, beats (like 'Alphabet' or 'Send me then…')

For extra support with poetry analysis, why not book a lesson with one of our experienced GCSE English tutor? With Tutorfair you can browse through a selection of great tutors to find the right one for you.

For More GCSE poem analyses similar to Love's Philosophy: The Farmer's Bride, Love's PhilosophyNeutral Tones, KamikazeOzymandias and When We Two Parted.