Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
- This poem starts with the same three words, "Half a league" repeated three times.
- First of all, what does that mean? Well, a league is an old way to measure distance, and it was equal to about 3 miles. So half a league is roughly a mile and a half.
- Second of all, why start a poem like this? Well, we think it sets up a nice rhythm, a kind of rolling, hypnotic sound. Maybe even a bit like a military march: Left! Left! Left, right, left!
- We also think these opening lines make the speaker of the poem sound exhausted, like he is at the end of a race, just trying to force himself through the last few laps. That mood will be really important later in the poem
All in the valley of Death
- Now this isn't half a league on a sunny day in the park. Nope, it turns out we're traveling in "the valley of Death." Scary, huh?
- We don't know exactly what that means at this point, but it's sure meant to make us feel a little scared and uncertain.
- We're pretty sure Tennyson and his readers would also have been thinking of the famous line in Psalm 23: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death."
Rode the six hundred.
- Tennyson is slowly introducing us to the setting and the action of the poem.
- Notice that he isn't being too specific. We already know that someone is covering a certain distance in a scary place. Now we learn that there are six hundred people, and that they are riding, probably on horseback. We mean, would you want to take your bicycle out for a spin in the valley of Death?
- We'll get more details soon, but things are already taking shape.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!
- Now someone speaks, shouting out a military order to move forward. We don't know who this fellow is, but he introduces the heroes of this poem, the fearless men of the Light Brigade. Who are these guys?
- Well, they are a group of soldiers – a "brigade" is a way of dividing up an army.
- They are "cavalry" soldiers, meaning they are riding on horseback.
- Finally, they are called "Light" to separate them from the "Heavy Brigade," another kind of cavalry unit at the time. Make sense? We just didn't want you to think they were actually glowing or anything.
- Also, Tennyson's poem is based on real events. In 1854, there was a Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War.
Charge for the guns!" he said.
- Imagine you're a soldier in 1854. We think "charge for the guns" would probably be the last thing you'd want to hear. That sounds dangerous, right? Especially if you're on a horse. Most folks would probably rather charge away from the guns.
- Who is this guy shouting out such a crazy order? We're not quite sure, and we think Tennyson left him invisible on purpose, to keep us focused on the amazing, tough guys in the Light Brigade.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
- The speaker ends the first section of the poem with a little refrain, a kind of recap of what we've learned so far (in lines 3-4).
- The brigade has been ordered into the valley, and they're riding in, even though they know that guns and "Death" are waiting for them.