This has to be one of my favourite poems ever written. I used to teach it to year 8 and get them to read it, discuss it and then write a 50 word [no more and no less] poem called THE BATTLE. Have a go at that in your own time. I dare you.
In teaching it, I trawled somewhere I cannot remember now and ended up with these notes. I hope they help.
Explanation: “The Charge of the Light Brigade”
The beginning lines of the poem throw the reader into the centre of action, with a rousing chant that drives the reader, both in its description and in its galloping rhythm, toward the battle. A “league” is approximately three miles long: charging horses could cover half a league in a few minutes. The audiences of the time of the poem would have been familiar with the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War, upon which the poem is based, and would have known from the beginning that they were charging to their own doom. (As the poem soon makes clear, the six hundred cavalrymen of the Light Brigade were aware of this themselves.) The poem suggests that it is these moments before the battle has begun that are the Brigade’s greatest glory. The phrase “Valley of Death” refers to an episode of John Bunyon’s Pilgrim’s Progress and to Psalm 23 from the New Testament of the Bible: in both of these sources, faith makes people brave when they are faced with death.
In the earliest published version of this poem, printed in the London Examiner on December 9, 1853, the command to charge forward was attributed to Lord Nolan, a well-known military figure of the time. In changing the speaker to an anonymous “he,” the poet shifts the focus of the poem away from individual actions and decisions onto matters of record, and onto the roles played by followers and leaders in military situations everywhere. In addition to obscuring the identity of the speaker, this final version of the poem changes the command given from “Take the guns” to “Charge for the guns!” This heightens the sense of the danger of the charge, while leaving unstated the reason for charging into the blaring gunfire.
No sooner does line 9 repeat the shouted command that sends the Light Brigade to their doom than line 10 makes the reader wonder whether any of the soldiers were stricken with fear upon hearing the command. Although we currently closely associate the word “dismay” with “shock,” its actual meaning includes a loss of courage. By raising this issue as a question and then answering that no, there was no fear, Tennyson gives the reader a moment’s pause to let the full extent of the soldiers’ bravery sink in. Line 11 and line 12 tell the reader without question that every member of the Brigade knew that this order was a mistake. This contradiction — the fact that the soldiers knew they were likely to die because of a “blunder” in military strategy, yet charged forward without fear anyway — gives the poem a psychological depth that would be lost if it merely celebrated the loyalty of soldiers who were unaware of the faulty command they were following.
Lines 13 through 15 repeat each other, in the way they phrase the rules these soldiers live by. The style suggests the regimented, militaristic way the members of the Light Brigade think as they ride ahead, and the effect of the strong use of repetition is to drown out concerns about the blunder mentioned in the previous stanza. “Theirs but to do and die” says that the soldiers are actually supposed to die — this might seem contrary to the purpose of fighting, but Tennyson makes it clear that this is the belief of the charging soldiers, for whom such a fate would be the ultimate expression of loyalty. In lines 16 and 17, the perspective shifts from what the soldiers think of their mission to a view of the overall battle situation, again repeating the image of the “valley of Death.”
The first three lines of this stanza are virtually identical, changing only the location of the cannons, presenting the layout of the battlefield visually, instead of simply stating the fact that there were cannons all around. By repeating the phrase three times, the reader is not only given information about the tremendous odds against the Light Brigade, but the poem gives the feeling of being surrounded.
“Stormed” in line 22 extends the image of “thundered” from the line before it, making the barrage of cannon fire aimed at the cavalrymen appear almost like a force of nature. Line 23 makes a point of mentioning that the soldiers of the Light Brigade were brave, but also that they rode their horses well. Their skill is mentioned almost as an afterthought, though, and this is the only place in the poem that it is brought up. The reason for this is that this poem makes its reader analyse the battle almost entirely in terms of attitude, not ability. In lines 24-26, Tennyson expands the phrase that was used to end the first two stanzas: instead of the geographic “Valley of Death,” he uses the metaphor “jaws of Death,” and extends this metaphor with “mouth of hell.” Treating death as the same thing as hell, and making both as real as an animal’s attack, the poem heightens the viciousness of death on the battlefield.
This stanza celebrates the Light Brigade’s control over the battle at its beginning. They ride into the enemy, using their sabres against opponents armed with cannons and pistols, and are able to break through the front line of defence. The pistols and rifles of the day would have been useless to the members of the Light Brigade because they required reloading with a very complicated procedure that involved measuring gunpowder and pellets, which would have been impossible for a man on horseback. Sending a cavalry unit into the confined space of a valley against guns was so obviously hopeless, that it may be this, and not the brigade’s initial success, that is referred to when the line “all the world wondered” appears in the middle of a vivid battle scene. In this stanza, the Light Brigade takes such complete control of the situation that their opponents, the Cossacks and Russians, find their defensive line torn apart (“shattered and sundered”) and have to retreat, while the six hundred cavalry members, who have by this time stared into the barrels of cannons and guns, continue to press forward bravely.
The first five lines of this stanza override any optimism the reader may have gotten from the Light Brigade’s initial success. By using the same words as were used in stanza 3 (except that now the cannon are behind instead of in front of them), the poem takes the reader back to the same sense of hopelessness that was established before the battle began. The brief victory that was gained in the fourth stanza has made no difference in the overall scope of the battle. The first time these words were used (lines 18-22), though, they ended with a claim of the soldiers’ boldness and skill: this time, they end with the soldiers (referred to directly as “heroes” ) being shot down. The path that the Light Brigade charged into — the jaws of death, the mouth of hell — is mentioned again as the survivors make their escape. Anthropologists and sociologists have observed that going into hell and then returning is a common motif in the mythology of many of the world’s cultures, including one of the best-known myths of Western civilization, the labours of Hercules. The survivors of this battle are thus raised to heroic status by the words that this poem uses to describe the valley’s entrance.
The focus of the poem shifts in this stanza, from describing the battle scene to addressing the reader directly. In using the description “wild” to marvel at the charge, Line 51 implies that thoughtless bravery is to be admired in and of itself, regardless of concerns about strategy or success. Repeating the line “All the world wondered” in line 52 adds to the idea that what the soldiers have done goes beyond the average person’s comprehension: the soldiers are following rules that those who rely on intellect over loyalty might not understand. Although a close reading of the tone of this poem can leave little question about how we are meant to feel about these cavalrymen, the poem does not rely upon a reader’s understanding of the subtleties of tone, but directly tells the reader in line 53 and line 55 to honour these soldiers. That the poem is so straightforward about its intent is an indicator that it was written for a common, often uneducated, audience, to celebrate the actions of common soldiers who understood what they were being asked to do better than the blundering military strategists who planned the attack.