Six hundred men in the Light Brigade ride through the valley, pushing half a league ahead. Their leader called them to charge for the enemy’s guns. It was a death mission; someone had made a mistake. But the men simply obey; “Theirs not to make reply, / Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die.”
They are surrounded by cannons, but the six hundred men ride on with courage into “the jaws of Death,” the “mouth of Hell.” They flash their sabers and slash at the gunners, six hundred men charging an entire army while the rest of the world wonders at their deeds. They plunge right through the smoke and through the battle line, forcing the Cossacks and Russians back.
Having accomplished what they could, they return through more cannon fire, and many more heroes and horses die. They have come through the jaws of Death and mouth of Hell, those who are left of the six hundred.
The speaker wonders whether their glory will ever fade due to their heroic charge; the whole world marvels at them and honors the “noble six hundred” of the Light Brigade.
As the poet laureate of England, Tennyson published this heroic and rousing poem in the Examiner on December 9, 1854, to commemorate the valiant actions of the light brigade that fought this battle in the Crimean War. It is said that Tennyson read a newspaper article about the Battle of Balaclava, where the charge took place, and wrote this poem within a matter of minutes. Tennyson’s son said later that the phrase from the article “some hideous blunder” caught his imagination; in the poem Tennyson’s words are “some one had blunder’d.” The poem was also included in an 1855 publication of his works. It was tremendously popular during its day, especially as it celebrated both the military and the common man’s perspective. Another famous British poet, Rudyard Kipling, took up the same event in his work “The Last of the Light Brigade,” but focused on how poorly the soldiers were treated once they were back in England.
The poem has six stanzas of differing lengths. The meter is dactylic, meaning that one stressed syllable is succeeded by two unstressed syllables. This gives the sense of boldly galloping or thundering like a drum. The rhyme scheme is irregular. Anaphora is also used (repetition of the same word at the beginning of multiple lines), which here creates the sense of the barrage the soldiers were facing, and which in general intensifies the emotion of the scene. The rhymes also tend to intensify the emotion and suggest the inevitability of the situation rather than something like unrhymed free verse would have done, which would have evoked mere chaos.
The Crimean War was a conflict between the Russian Empire and the forces of the British Empire, French Empire, Ottoman Empire, and Kingdom of Sardinia. It spanned three years, from 1853 to 1856, and was largely concerned with the territories of the Ottoman Empire, which by this time was in decline. The famous charge of the British light cavalry took place at the Battle of Balaclava on October 25, 1854. This brigade was supposed to pursue a Russian artillery train but, due to miscommunication, was instead sent into a frontal assault against heavily fortified Russian defenses. The British were valorous but were cut to pieces and retreated with immense casualties (some estimates say 247 of the 637 died).
The reasons for the poem’s contemporary popularity should be evident because it is such a stirring expression of courage under fire, of heroism under impossible odds, of the might of the English military. Tennyson’s images are powerful; he creates a scene of chaos and carnage with cannons thundering and shells falling. The men are stoic and unquestioning as English men are supposed to be, and they embrace their orders without offering critique or refusal. (Tennyson also captures the frustration of the blunder and the perhaps needless loss of life.) The men ride “boldly” and fight well in the hellish battle, in the “valley of Death” that is their burial ground.
The phrase “valley of Death” is probably an allusion to Psalm 23, which speaks of “the valley of the shadow of death,” where the speaker does not fear evil because of trust in God’s leading. Yet, unlike the psalm, it is not a wise God but a blundering order that has led the men into their predicament. In any case, the personification of the valley and the “mouth of Hell” creates a terrifying scene; the six hundred men are truly remarkable for throwing themselves into this monstrous situation under orders.
It is important that the memory of these men lives on, that their glory never fades. The poet calls upon readers to “Honour the charge they made! / Honour the Light Brigade,” for their duty, loyalty, and perseverance. This political poem is quite different from his mythical, lyrical, and narrative works, although the theme of death is certainly prominent once again, and the poem fits the nobility of the fighters and the need to recognize the noble valor of military men.