Thursday, December 1, 2011

Jaws of Death

In most cases poems that catch my eye are modern works, usually from the last fifty years or so, with a lean toward the avant garde. Not to say that poetry of earlier generations, earlier ages is in my opinion ‘out to pasture,’ for there are examples of either older or classic poetry that lift the spirit and stir my heart. In that vein, the spotlight this time is on an older work, a nineteenth century poem that most of us studied in school at one time or another. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is a stirring achievement paying homage to brave soldiers in a misbegotten war, and a beautiful thing to read.

The Crimean War (1853-1856) involved the forces of France, Turkey, Britain and Sardinia fighting against the Russian Empire. It was an unpopular war in the eyes of the British public and coverage of the conflict was prominent in newspapers at the time. The poet Tennyson was much interested in the war, reading newspapers daily, eagerly in order to stay current with events in the war. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1854) was a result of the poet’s fascination with heroism in this unpopular war.

Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) published his first volume of poetry before his eighteenth birthday. Even as a boy he often made up phrases or lines as he walked, storing them in memory until he had a proper setting for them, suggesting a concern with rhythm and language over meaning. Even his critics have always admitted his lyrical gift for sound and cadence, one possibly unequaled in English poetry.

During the Battle of Balaclava the Light Brigade was initially kept in reserve, but a slow advance of the British infantry to take advantage of earlier successes gave Russian forces time to take away artillery pieces from captured positions. Seeing this, the British Commander Lord Raglan ordered the Light Brigade to advance to the front, follow the enemy and prevent them from carrying away the artillery. This message was relayed to his Cavalry Commander, but in a catastrophic miscommunication another officer on Raglan’s staff urged Commander Lucan to attack the artillery at the head of the valley. Lucan then ordered the Light Brigade to attack artillery at the head of the valley, not the artillery being taken from captured positions by Russian forces—as intended by Lord Raglan.



Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!

Charge for the guns!” he said.

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.


“Forward, the Light Brigade!”

Was there a man dismayed?

Not though the soldier knew

Someone had blundered.

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die.

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.


Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon in front of them

Volleyed and thundered;

Stormed at with shot and shell,

Boldly they rode and well,

Into the jaws of Death,

Into the mouth of hell

Rode the six hundred.


Flashed all their sabres bare,

Flashed as they turned in air

Sab’ring the gunners there,

Charging an army, while

All the world wondered.

Plunged in the battery-smoke

Right thro’ the line they broke;

Cossack and Russian

Reeled from the sabre stroke

Shattered and sundered.

Then they rode back, but not

Not the six hundred.


Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon behind them

Volleyed and thundered;

Stormed at with shot and shell,

While horse and hero fell.

They that had fought so well

Came through the jaws of Death,

Back from the mouth of hell,

All that was left of them,

Left of six hundred.


When can their glory fade?

O the wild charge they made!

All the world wondered.

Honour the charge they made!

Honour the Light Brigade,

Noble six hundred!


  1. I love that poem, and also his "Ulysses", which I memorized years ago. A wonderful poet.

  2. How well - like it was yesterday - I remember being in the 11th grade and our literature teacher, Mrs. Michaels, had us studying this poem. She was a wonderful reader of literature and poems and read this with such vigor that one would think she was the one charging into battle.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America