illustration of a soldier in traditional nineteenth century military garb

The Charge of the Light Brigade

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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What is the takeaway message from "The Charge of the Light Brigade"?

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Alfred, Lord Tennyson, wrote the poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade" shortly after reading about the Battle of Balaklava in Crimea in 1854. In this battle, a mistaken order sent hundreds of British cavalrymen to their deaths. Tennyson wrote the poem to honor the bravery of the soldiers who honorably obeyed the orders of their commanding officer. Although the message, or theme, Tennyson certainly intended to convey was one of remembrance of and acclaim for the dead soldiers, a modern reader, and perhaps even a Victorian reader, might be expected to take one of two messages away from the poem. The first, which Tennyson seemed to embrace, is that soldiers are worthy of honor when they die in battle, even when, or perhaps especially when, "someone had blundered" in giving the order to charge. Tennyson asserts, "Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die." In other words, rank and file soldiers must obey orders without question, even if they suspect or know the order is based on a poor decision. Another message a reader could take away from the poem is that military operations value obedience above independent thought or wisdom--sometimes cheapening the lives of enlisted men. One might wonder as a result of this tragic event: Could armies institute some way of allowing a soldier who saw a danger that his commanding officer didn't to inform the superior of the danger? Hundreds of lives could be saved by correcting this "do and die" requirement. A reader could potentially hold both these views at once: honoring the bravery of those willing to follow their commanders "into the jaws of death, into the mouth hell" but also hoping that a method of preventing such blunders could be found. The message is similar to the one of the poem "Casabianca" by Felicia Dorothea Hemans, where a young boy refuses to abandon a burning ship without the command from his father, the captain, who has been slain without the boy's knowledge. In my college literature classes, students are almost evenly divided between those who honor the boy's unwavering obedience and those who mourn his inability to think for himself. Similarly, many readers may value the brave self-sacrifice of the Light Brigade, while others may prefer to see the soldiers able to "make reply" rather than rush to their senseless deaths.

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