The Charge of the Light Brigade Summary
The beginning lines of the poem throw the reader into the center of action, with a rousing chant that drives the reader, both in its description and in its galloping rhythm, toward the battle. A "league" is approximately three miles long: charging horses could cover half a league in a few minutes. The audiences of the time of the poem would have been familiar with the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War, upon which the poem is based, and would have known from the beginning that they were charging to their own doom. (As the poem soon makes clear, the six hundred cavalrymen of the Light Brigade were aware of this themselves.) The poem suggests that it is these moments before the battle has begun that are the Brigade's greatest glory. The phrase "Valley of Death" refers to an episode of John Bunyon's Pilgrim's Progress and to Psalm 23 from the Old Testament of the Bible: in both of these sources, faith makes people brave when they are faced with death.
In the earliest published version of this poem, printed in the London Examiner on December 9, 1854, the command to charge forward was attributed to Lord Nolan, a well-known military figure of the time. In changing the speaker to an anonymous "he," the poet shifts the focus of the poem away from individual actions and decisions onto matters of record, and onto the roles played by followers and leaders in military situations everywhere. In addition to obscuring the identity of the speaker, this final version of the poem changes the command given from "Take the guns" to "Charge for the guns!" This heightens the sense of the danger of the charge, while leaving unstated the reason for charging into the blaring gunfire.
No sooner does line 9 repeat the shouted command that sends the Light Brigade to their doom than line 10 makes the reader wonder whether any of the soldiers were stricken with fear upon hearing the command. Although we currently closely associate the word "dismay" with "shock," its actual meaning includes a loss of courage. By raising this issue as a question and then answering that no, there was no fear, Tennyson gives the reader a moment's pause to let the full extent of the soldiers' bravery sink in. Line 11 and line 12 tell the reader without question that every member of the Brigade knew that this order was a mistake. This contradiction—the fact that the soldiers knew they were likely to die because of a "blunder" in military strategy, yet charged forward without fear anyway—gives the poem a psychological depth that would be lost if it merely celebrated the loyalty of soldiers who were unaware of the faulty command they were following.
Lines 13 through 15 repeat each other, in the way they phrase the rules these soldiers live by. The style suggests the regimented, militaristic way the members of the Light Brigade think as they ride ahead, and the effect of the strong use of repetition is to drown out concerns about the blunder mentioned in the previous stanza. "Theirs but to do and die" says that the soldiers are actually supposed to die—this might seem contrary to the purpose of fighting, but Tennyson makes it clear that this is the belief of the charging soldiers, for whom such a fate would be the ultimate expression of loyalty. In lines 16 and 17, the perspective shifts from what the soldiers think of their mission to a view of the overall battle situation, again repeating the image of the "Valley of Death."
The first three lines of this stanza are virtually identical, changing only the location of the cannons, presenting the layout of the battlefield visually, instead of simply stating the fact that there were cannons all around. By repeating the phrase three times, the reader is not only given information about the tremendous odds against the Light Brigade, but the poem gives the feeling of being surrounded.
"Stormed" in line 22 extends the image of "thundered" from the line before it, making the...
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