Into the Valley of Death: An Analysis of “The Charge of the Light Brigade”
“The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred Tennyson was a poem I really enjoyed. Partially because the third stanza was quoted in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine season six episode “Sacrifice of Angels”. Having also enjoyed battle and action scenes in books, movies, and TV shows—especially when I’m stressed—and having been exposed to the military my entire life, I easily understood the poem.
I read an article from Victorian Poetry’s fall 2009 issue entitled “Giving Voice to the Crimean War: Tennyson’s ‘Charge’ and Maud’s Battle-song” by Stefanie Markovits. Markovits compares Tennyson’s two works to understand the challenges the Crimean War brought to poetry (Markovits 482). The article also compares common themes of the confusion between public and private personas, the element of suicide, and interpreting uncertainty in both “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and Maud (Markovits 488).
Markovits starts by pointing out how it was hard to distinguish what were Tennyson’s own feelings about the Crimean War (Markovits 482). The British population was not enthusiastic about the war any more due to journalist reporting, and Tennyson came across as a person who longed for more war in “The Charge” and Maud (Markovits 483). Critics have also noted how Maud’s organization keeps the reader from associating the narrator’s thoughts with those of Tennyson (Markovits 483). R. J. Mann says “Maud is a drama”, and Markovits says the narrator is “tragically flawed”, which results in the reader judging the narrator but also allows the reader to sympathize with him (Markovits 483). The uncertainty of position on the war in Maud is nowhere to be seen in “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (Markovits 483).
“The Charge” seems very much like it is maintaining the pro-war attitude of the upper class and military (Markovits 483-484). England’s aristocrats still had their leadership because their soldiers carried out their orders despite how ludicrous they sounded (Markovits 484). However, Tennyson guided the reader’s judgment of the cavaliers by the use of “noble” in the last line of the poem in reference to the soldiers (Markovits 484). Were the cavaliers stupid for charging into an obvious no-win battle (Markovits 485)? The use of the single adjective in the poem—aside from ‘light’—tells the readers how they should be thinking of the soldiers (Markovits 484).
The way Tennyson wrote “The Charge” also prevents the reader from sympathizing with the soldiers (Markovits 484). Tennyson decided to keep the poem detached by mainly using the pronoun ‘they’, though ‘we’ was used in earlier drafts of “The Charge” (Markovits 484). The cavaliers’ charge was a result of confusion from messed up orders—it was chaos—and Tennyson, through the many revisions of “The Charge”, attempted to give the chaos some type of order (Markovits 485, 487). Tennyson edited “The Charge” numerous times because he wanted to tactfully navigate the “messy politics” and his own thoughts about the war (Markovits 487). Markovits believes that after receiving the accusations of being a warmonger based on “The Charge”, Tennyson wrote Maud to show the public that a poet’s works and his personal opinions may be different (Markovits 487).
Markovits goes on to compare how “The Charge” was a meant to be a public poem, and Maud was more of a private poem (Markovits 488). “The Charge” was supposed to be in the public eye, for it was published in a newspaper—can’t get any more public than a newspaper in the Victorian age (Markovits 488). However, Markovits noted how Tennyson did not attach his name to the poem and rather his initials (Markovits 488). She said this might be because the war was so unpopular with the British people that it was shaky if a poem could bring out the patriotism of the population (Markovits 488). In comparison, Markovits says Maud has a very private feeling—partly due to the use of “I” instead of “they” as in “The Charge”, and due to Tennyson using events from his own life (Markovits 488).
Markovits then looks at the component of suicide in both poems (Markovits 490). In Maud, the narrator focuses on his father’s death and how he is afraid he might do the same (Markovits 490). In “The Charge”, Tennyson’s use of “and” instead of “or” in the line “Do and die” suggests that the soldiers were expecting to die for England (Markovits 490). The Times even suggested the brigade’s failure was better “than the successful actions of ‘demi-gods’ would have been” (Markovits 492).
Both of Tennyson’s poems also are confusing as to where blame is supposed to be laid (Markovits 493). In Maud, the blame shifts, and in “The Charge” Tennyson avoids naming people who were responsible for the failure (Markovits 493). Both poems change directions, bringing the reader in and out of the valley in “The Charge”, and down in and up out of insanity in Maud (Markovits 496). When read, both poems get the reader caught up in emotion, and the reader forgets about the “disquieting aspects” of the poem (Markovits 497).
While there are significant difference between Maud and “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, the commonalities are important as well. Stefanie Markovits does a thorough job analyzing both of the poems in her work, “Giving Voice to the Crimean War: Tennyson’s ‘Charge’ and Maud’s Battle-song.”
Fierce Queen is a cradle Catholic who was homeschooled for kindergarten and first grade. She has spent the rest of her elementary and secondary school career in the public school system, bringing the Catholic position to class discussions. She attended St. Bonaventure University where she earned her Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education. In 2009, she started writing fan fiction for a 10th grade Spanish project in which she was assigned to write a children’s story and thought a Narnia tale would work perfectly! Alas, after she wrote it, she gained several ideas for stories to publish on fandom sites, and still loves to snatch any plot bunny she can snare. Once they viewed Prince Caspian, Fierce and her sisters made bows from tree branches and bungee cords, arrows from dowell rods and eraser caps, and quivers from paper towel tubes. They have since gotten into real archery, and Fierce goes shooting weekly with a PSE Scout recurve bow at 25lbs draw weight.