The Charge of the Light Brigade by Tennyson: Summary, Poem Analysis & Meaning

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  • 0:00 Alfred Lord Tennyson
  • 0:49 Poem Context
  • 1:31 Summary & Structure
  • 3:49 Analysis & Meaning
  • 5:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Abigail Walker

Abigail has taught writing and literature at various universities. She has an M.A. In literature from American University and an M.F.A. in English from The University of Iowa.

Alfred Lord Tennyson's 'The Charge of the Light Brigade,' is one of the most famous poems in the English language. Written after Tennyson read an account of a battle during the Crimean War, the poem celebrates the patriotism of the many brave English soldiers who died in the 1854 conflict.

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Born in 1809, British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson grew up in a rectory in Somersby, Lincolnshire. One of twelve children, Tennyson's childhood was unhappy. His father, a clergyman, was sometimes violent, and some of Tennyson's siblings were institutionalized for alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illness. As a child, Tennyson seemed to find relief from his family by writing poems. Later, while studying at Cambridge, Tennyson won an award for his poetry. In 1850, Queen Victoria named him Poet Laureate. A poet laureate is an officially appointed poet that sometimes composes poems for special events. Tennyson remained the foremost Victorian poet until his death in 1892.

Poem Context

Tennyson's poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade, is based on events from the Battle of Balaclava that occurred near the Black Sea in 1854. This battle of the Crimean War, in which England, France and the Ottoman Empire fought against Russia, immediately captured Tennyson's interest when he read a newspaper article detailing British casualties at Balaclava. The many dead and wounded English soldiers were the result of a tragic misunderstanding about the location of Russian arms. Mistakenly informed that these arms were in a valley, the British troops descended and became easy targets of the Russians. As a result, almost half of the Light Brigade died.

Summary & Structure

The plot of The Charge of the Light Brigade provides only a bare outline of the battle. Still, Tennyson gives us just enough details in the poem's 6 stanzas to make us realize that the British command has blundered, and that the soldiers fight valiantly, even as many are being torn apart by cannon balls.

As the poem opens, the Light Brigade's leader commands hundreds of his soldiers to keep riding towards the lowlands until they reach and can seize Russian firearms. The troops are, as is mentioned three times in the first stanza, half a league away from finding their enemy's firearms. Unaware that one of their commanders has made a mistake, the soldiers calmly ride forward but as they reach the lowlands, the Light Brigade soldiers are attacked. As cannons sound, the English hold their swords high and fight on. In the smoky air caused by the cannons, the soldiers bravely fight on, managing to run their swords into the flesh of some of their Russian enemies. The soldiers soon find they cannot withstand the Russian cannons any longer, as their horses and friends lie wounded or lifeless on the ground, the surviving soldiers watch their enemies retreat, unaware that their Light Brigade will be remembered as glorious.

Interestingly, Tennyson evokes the complexity of battle and the glory of the Light Brigade by providing a very simple structure for his poem. Not only does he limit the length of his poem to six short stanzas, but he also presents short lines in each stanza. These short lines tend to follow a pattern, known as dactylic dimeter. In this structure, there are six syllables per line: two stressed and four unstressed syllables.

For example, we find dactylic dimeter in:

'flash'd all their sabres bare.'

Describing the English attack on the Russians, this line reveals two stressed syllables, flash'd and the 'sa' in sabres, while the other four syllables are unstressed. Dactylic dimeter is called a falling meter because the first syllable in each dactyl, a poetic 'foot' made up of one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables is accentuated, while the other two, are unaccentuated.

This falling meter works very well in Tennyson's poem to emphasize the falling of the British soldiers as they drop, wounded or dead, to the ground.

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