Inspired by one of the greatest calamities in British military history, Tennyson wrote the poem early December of 1854 in response to an article in The Times about the British Light Cavalry Brigade making a disastrous charge against Russian soldiers with almost 40 to 1 odds against them.
Condemning the charge as a horrendous ‘blunder’, the poem praises the courage of those ‘Noble six hundred’, who obeyed their orders despite knowing they were likely to die upon doing so. Tennyson moves the readers to the battlefield during the conflict, showing them the sacrifices made and the horrors experienced by these soldiers for their nation to live, letting the reader feel the difference between courage and honor. While one may be acting bravely, the other reflects the integrity and depth of thought behind the action.
The dactylic meter of the poem spread across the differing lengths of the six stanzas gives the sense of the soldiers’ galloping horses. The anaphora used here creates the sense of the bombardment the soldiers were faced with and suggests the inevitability of the situation rather than perceived chaos like unrhymed free verse would have done.
These soldiers knew they were riding off into their very own ‘valley of death’, and did it anyway because of faith in their orders and faith that what they were doing was right and needed. Even in the face of such a misguided command to charge, there is no questioning if the soldiers will fail to carry out their military duty. They will fight with courage, never stopping just because it is a lost cause. They will do it and die, unflappable and unquestioning as English men are considered to be in battle.
However, unlike the psalm, rather than an all-knowing God it is an order that has led the men into their plight. Regardless, the personification of the valley and the “mouth of Hell” creates a nightmarish scene – these men have thrown themselves into this horrendous situation under orders. The reader is called to “Honour the charge they made! Honour the Light Brigade,” and recognize the noble valor of these military men. These men rode “boldly” and fought well in the hellish battle, in the “valley of Death” that becomes their burial ground. They demonstrate courage under fire, heroism under impossible odds, and remarkable integrity doing what they felt right despite knowing they likely would not see the sun rise on another day.
The omission of ‘the’ in ‘Cannon to right of them’ makes the line sound a bit cut off and rushed. This encourages the reader to feel the recklessness of the charge itself. This absence also makes it sound slightly odd and unnatural, once more giving the impression that there is something wrong here. The reader is left to question why these men, members of this light brigade, are being ordered to charge into the heavy cannon-fire of the enemy? Surely some of these men questioned their orders, but followed them with the knowledge they would be dying for something significant.
Too few remain after the charge of the ‘six hundred’ who rode into battle – with the half remaining feeling that the whole ordeal had been a colossal waste of life. Tennyson’s continued use of the word ‘left’ throughout the poem shifts the word’s meaning from a sense of location to one marking the sacrifice the men have made. As the old saying goes, war doesn’t determine who is right – only who is left. We should all strive to move through life with courage and hope that each step is backed by a deep-seated honor to give each moment meaning – bravely stepping one foot in front of the other, knowing it is with purpose and integrity, as these soldiers have done.