Tennyson and the Origins of War Poetry
When a history student writes about war poetry… massive nerding ensues. Rachel Eng takes a look at the historical context behind Tennyson’s famed poem, ‘The Charge of Light Brigade’. She also discusses the nationalism and patriotism manipulated by the then-Laureate for maximum effect while foregrounding the latent criticism that the poem raises of the military command behind the charge.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson remains one of the most famous, complicatedly-named poets of the Victorian era for the ‘perfection’ that is said to be characteristic of all his literary works. The poem he is most synonymous with is The Charge of the Light Brigade, a ballad concerned with the Battle of Balaclava – not waged over suspicious headgear – during the Crimean War. What is less discussed is how the poem (henceforth abbreviated Charge) was one of the first of its kind, and how Tennyson essentially defined the genre, before the carnage of World War One redefined it.
No analysis of war poetry would be complete without an understanding of the war it concerns. Factually, i.e. Wikipedia, the Crimean War was waged between 1853 and 1856, and ended in a victory for Britain, France, Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire over Russia. As with all wars, it began with a bunch of old men concerned about what the other old men were doing – in this case, gaining influence in the Middle East. When rioting gave Russia the excuse to mobilise, war was declared (the British and French, playing Americans, declared war only five months after Turkey), and an allied invasion force landed in Sevastopol in 1854.
From the outset, allied forces were plagued with less organization than the room of an average university student during finals. This would prove to be the light brigade’s undoing during the Battle of Balaclava on 25 October, 1854. Overall commander Lord Raglan wanted the cavalry to stop a hastily retreating, defenseless Russian artillery battery, but the final message that got through to cavalry commander the Earl of Lucan was an ambiguous ‘try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns’. As if this wasn’t bad enough, when Lucan asked the officer who delivered the message – Captain Nolan, completing a triumvirate of unfortunately similar names – which guns these were, Nolan supposedly pointed to the wrong ones. Historians have spent years holed up in oak-panelled, dusty-bookshelved rooms pointing fingers at each of the three stooges, but because of Nolan’s death within the first minute of the charge, the exact circumstances are unknown. Instead of taking a relatively easier objective, therefore, the Light Brigade was sent into the ‘valley of death’ because ‘someone had blunder’d’. Even the fashionable Earl of Cardigan and his jumper couldn’t prevent 278 casualties.
Tennyson, at the time, had become renowned for his artistic poetry and had been appointed Poet Laureate by the Queen. An account he read of the battle by William Howard Russell in the London Times moved him to pen a poem about the exceptional bravery of the ordinary soldiers who fought in the Crimean War, juxtaposed against the bungling incompetency of their commanders. His prolific position, both in his official capacity as well as his public popularity, contributed to the immense success of Charge. It was widely circulated in the Examiner and even made its way to the front lines of the war. Britons, in the words of Stephen Fry, ‘celebrate failures’, and the light brigade gave Britain its most glorious failure yet.
The result was what Eric Hobsbawm has described as nationalism, masculinism, and “state patriotism” (Lootens, 2000, p. 256). Tennyson’s poem played up to British perceptions of themselves as those who did not ‘reason why’: a stoic, quietly heroic nation, defying impossible odds to come out with (if not survival) their pride and honour intact (Rose, 2003, 79). Between the Crimean and Boer wars, poetry – and other forms of popular entertainment – were increasingly jingoistic, celebrating in particular the archetypical British soldier (Kipling’s poems pre-WWI are great examples). While there were, of course, war poems before Charge, they lagged behind for two reasons: firstly, they did not appeal to the spirit of nationalism the way Tennyson’s does, marked as they were by ‘an internationalist pacifism’ and more obvious criticism of the government (Lootens, 2000, p. 256). Secondly, they had far less exposure – being a newspaper poem, Charge might have hit circulation figures of 55000 (University of Victoria). It was thus Tennyson’s work which became representative of Victorian war poetry and set the mood for the period as a ‘sub-department of patriotic verse’ (Bevis, 2007).
The poem itself very obviously emphasizes the bravery of the light brigade in the face of insurmountable firepower. Its pounding, headlong rhythm, accentuated by the repeated words, recreate the charge to great effect, building up a momentum that stops spectacularly when they crash ‘right through the line’. Stanza four – where they are decimated by the guns – breaks the pattern set by the previous three stanzas, adding an extra line and ending (instead of ‘into…rode the six hundred’) with
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.
This jolts us from the hitherto glorious charge and heightens the horror and pity we feel for the soldiers. (The repetition of the word ‘not’, resembling a shocked stutter, furthers this.) We are finally asked to ‘honour the charge they made’, creating a sense of solidarity in the public memory of the soldiers’ bravery. This is not Wilfred Owen by any stretch of the imagination; this is patriotic, heart-stirring stuff.
What is often less highlighted, overshadowed as it is by the popular perceptions mentioned, is how Tennyson is actually very critical of the government and the entire exercise. This interpretation hinges on several lines, in particular the repeated line ‘all the world wondered’. The word ‘wonder’ doesn’t just mean wow-that’s-amazing, but also scratching-head-why-on-earth, and the ambiguity immediately questions the military incompetence and needlessness of the charge. As a French general famously commented on the charge, ‘it’s very magnificent, but it’s not war’. Tennyson remains acutely aware of the folly of war, and does not shy away from the gritty ‘shattered and sundered’ battle. While the heroic soldiers are deserving of praise, and while their charge was noble and almost transcendent of their situation, they should not have been in that position in the first place.
Hence, while Tennyson might very well have begun the tradition of jingoism and patriotic war poetry, it should also be observed that he wasn’t entirely riding around on a giant bulldog, bellowing God Save the Queen with the Union Jack tattooed on his face. Victorian nationalism was certainly alive and well enough for World War One to be a completely shattering experience, and many disillusioned writers would go on to criticize and mock Tennyson’s heroic, glorious ideal. But to ignore Tennyson’s awareness of the darker realities of war would be like owning a broken camera with a cracked lens – you wouldn’t be getting the whole picture.
Works Cited / Further Reading
The Actual Poem:
Tennyson, A. The Charge of the Light Brigade (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174586)
On the Crimean War:
Figes, O. (2012) The Crimean War: A History. New York: Picador.
Hibbert, C. (1961) The Destruction of Lord Raglan: A tragedy of the Crimean War, 1854–55. Harlow: Longman.
National Archives (n.d.) Crimea, 1854. [Online]. Available from: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/battles/crimea/
Lambert, A. (2011) The Crimean War. BBC. [Online]. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/crimea_01.shtml
Ponting, C. (2004) The Crimean War: The Truth Behind the Myth. London: Chatto & Windus.
On the Battle of Balaclava (and not the Battle For Balaclavas, which involved fifteen robbers and the last mask in the store):
Adkin, M. (1996) The Charge: Real Reason Why the Light Brigade Was Lost. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books.
Forbes, A. (1891) The Battle of Balaclava. Contemporary Review, 1866-1900, 59, 428-440
Russell, W. H. (1854) The Charge of the Light Brigade. Times, 14 November, 6. [Online]. Available from:
Woodham-Smith, C. (1971) The Reason Why. London: Penguin.
On Tennyson and War Poetry:
Bevis, S. (2007) Fighting Talk: Victorian War Poetry. In: T. Kendall (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 7-33.
Lootens, T. (2000) Victorian Poetry and Patriotism’. In: J. Bristow (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 255-279.
Markovits, S. (2009) Giving Voice to the Crimean War: Tennyson’s “Charge” and Maud’s Battle-song. Victorian Poetry 47 (3), 481-503.
Perry, S. (n.d.) ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’: making poetry from war’. British Library. [Online]. Available from: http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-charge-of-the-light-brigade-making-poetry-from-war.
University of Victoria (n.d.) Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” and Newspaper Poetry. [Online]. Available from:
As evinced by the absurdly long bibliography, RACHEL ENG is a second-year history student at University College London, concentrating on imperial and military history. She took literature at A Levels and has memorized ‘Dulce Et Deocorum Est’ as testament to her interest in war poetry. Her only previous brush with the Crimean War was an article in which she illustrated the Earl of Cardigan’s men as rechargeable lightbulbs.
Photo credit: Rachel Eng