Tennyson's "Light Brigade"

October 25: On this day in 1854, one of the most famous battles of military history was fought at Balaclava, in the Crimea. Upon reading reports of the disaster in the Times five weeks later, Tennyson wrote "The Charge of the Light Brigade," composing the poem while raking leaves, he later said, and writing it out in a few minutes.

 

In his memoir, Hallam Tennyson describes his father as a "soldier at heart," one proud to have received a note from a returning veteran saying, "I escaped with my life and my Tennyson." The poem was so popular among those serving in the Crimea that a thousand copies were handed out at the front, and at Tennyson's funeral in Westminster Abbey survivors of the Balaclava battle lined the aisles. As poet laureate, Tennyson wrote a number of nationalistic poems, but he was anxious not to be perceived as a jingoist or war-lover. His epilogue to "The Charge of the Heavy Brigade," a poem written decades later, contains the lines, "And who loves War for War's own sake, / Is fool or crazed or worse."

 

But the story behind Tennyson's later, "Heavy Brigade" poem is an interesting and more complicated one. Many of the surviving Balaclava soldiers, long returned to England and long forgotten, were so destitute that a charity drive was undertaken on their behalf. When little money was raised, the charity organizers suggested that the veterans visit Tennyson, who might rally support. When they did so, he wrote his "Heavy Brigade" poem and appealed for more donations. Money came in, and then the politicians gave a lot of it to other causes—prevention of cruelty to animals, for one. This so angered Rudyard Kipling that he penned "The Last of the Light Brigade" to document the scandal. At this moment in the poem, Kipling's veterans visit the "Master-singer," Tennyson:

The old Troop-Sergeant was spokesman, and "Beggin' your pardon," he said,

"You wrote o' the Light Brigade, sir. Here's all that isn't dead.

An' it's all come true what you wrote, sir, regardin' the mouth of hell;

For we're all of us nigh to the workhouse, an' we thought we'd call an' tell.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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