Death, war, and writing about death in war (3)
War poetry is a deeply divisive and devided category of writing. On the one hand, there are poems that glorify soldiers and their nobility in war. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade embodies this ambivalence of glorifying courage and nobility during military campaigns, and acknowledging the futility of deaths (particularly in the case of the charge of the Light Brigade, characterised as it is by misinformation.)
Each stanza opens with repetition and anaphora, suggesting inevitability: ‘Half a league, half a league, / half a league onward’ Tennyson begins, mimicking the surging rhythm of a cavalry on horseback. (Full text here.) He later turns a desperate image of military carnage into a refrain in the third and fifth stanzas:
Cannon to the right of them
Cannon to the left of them
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered
The anaphora and epistrophe emphasises the geographic reality of being surrounded by cannons, creating a claustrophobic reading experience of being caught in the middle of a set of virtually identical phrases. In the face of this helpless, inescapable slaughter, which Tennyson repeatedly terms ‘the valley of Death’, ‘the jaws of Death’ and ‘the mouth of hell’ the cavalry charge is depicted as the encapsulation of obedience and courageous defiance. In the second stanza, Tennyson articulates the futility and misguided waste of the deaths of the Light Brigade cavalrymen: ‘Not that the soldier knew / Someone had blundered.’ There is a lack of choice and resistance that is denied to these men, whose fate is ‘but to do and die’ – a wasted death that leaves many war writers (and general people) furious.
Yet Tennyson presents the charge not as a failed military action or as a waste of human life, nor as the embodiment of a meaningless set of individual deaths caused by military strategic errors. Rather, he presents the charge as a heroic event, as the cavalrymen in the charge ‘flashed’ their sabres. There is a notable lack of individuality to Tennyson’s description of the cavalrymen: ‘they’ are ‘the six hundred.’ Individuality is subsumed within a group mentality, a shared focus that Tennyson celebrates as having its own nobility and beauty: fighting as one, dying as one. (The reality of this, of course, was quite different: during the charge, around 118 men were killed, 127 wounded, and 60 taken prisoner, and each of the experiences of each of those men would have been highly traumatising and deeply personal.) But for Tennyson, the focus is not on the individual man or the individual experience, but on the communality of the soldiers’ mind-set during, and in the aftermath, of a battle. ‘When can their glory fade?’ he wonders in the final stanza, using the imperative mood to command his readers to ‘Honour’ the Light Brigade, conferring a nobility of action to the men who were the casualties of a misguided and highly damaging military charge.
But is this postscript just a sentiment Tennyson appended to comfort himself and his readers from pondering the appalling futility of the charge itself? Even though the tone of the final stanza is indeed glorious and triumphant, are these images of the jaws of Death and hell, the repeated refrain of being bombarded by cannons, worth a person’s ‘blunder’? What is noble about being a soldier from whom obedience yields only the option to ‘do and die’? How triumphant, really, is Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade?
Posted: 22nd July 2019Categories: Reflections