Alfred, Lord Tennyson was an English poet writing during the Victorian period (that means during the reign of Queen Victoria, or 1837-1901). Tennyson was a superstar poet during his life and was named poet laureate in 1850, after the death of William Wordsworth. He was also given a title and a position in the nobility because of his awesomeness as a poet. (You got it, "Lord" isn't his middle name; it's his aristocratic title. When he was born, he was plain old Alfred Tennyson.)
Tennyson published "The Charge of the Light Brigade" in an English newspaper called The Examiner on December 9, 1854. By that point, he had been the Poet Laureate of England for more than four years, and he was well on his way to being the most famous and successful poet of his time.
While reading this poem, it's important to know that at the time, the British were fighting the Russian Empire in the Crimean War. Tennyson read a newspaper story about the Battle of Balaclava (not to be confused with baklava, the delicious dessert). In this battle, a small group of British soldiers on horseback (called the Light Brigade) made a desperate and doomed attack, and suffered heavy casualties. Apparently, Tennyson was so moved by what he read that he dashed off this poem, which has turned into one of the most famous poems ever about the tragic heroism of soldiers.
War is all around us. It touches the lives of people across America and across the world. It's scary, tragic, awful, but also sometimes heroic, exciting, and awe-inspiring. That's a pretty crazy combination, isn't it? How do we make sense of something that brings out the absolute worst in humanity, but also shows our courage, our faithfulness, and our willingness to sacrifice.
Art, including poetry can help us to think about what war is and what it means. "The Charge of the Light Brigade" is a serious classic, one of the most famous war poems of all time. That means that generations of people have turned to this poem as a way to celebrate heroism. At the same time, this poem helps us to confront the horror of war. Just like other more recent works of art like The Hurt Locker, Generation Kill, and Band of Brothers, this poem gives us a way to grapple with the mixed emotions of war, and just maybe to understand it a little better. We think that definitely makes it worth your time.
A Clip of the Charge from a 1936 Movie
A pretty cool dramatization of the charge from The Charge of the Light Brigade, starring Errol Flynn. It's way more action movie than mournful tribute, but that doesn't make it any less good.
Clip from Charge of the Light Brigade (1968)
In case you wanted to see the action in color…
Animated Movie of the Crimean War
A sort of trippy, slightly confusing but weirdly fun cartoon recap of the Crimean War.
Photo Montage of Crimean War Pics
A pretty good song, too.
Tennyson Reading the Poem
A very early sound recording of the very old poet reading his famous poem. Sounds like he's underwater, wrapped in gauze, and about a half a mile away, but still worth a listen.
Another Reading of the Poem
An actor performs a dramatic reading of the poem.
"Retelling the Tale of the Light Brigade"
An NPR Weekend Edition episode from the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Balaclava.
Alfred Tennyson in a Crazy Hat
You owe it to yourself to check this one out.
"Why the Charge of the Light Brigade still matters"
An article from the BBC on the 150th anniversary of the Charge.
An Eyewitness Account
Read excerpts from the letters and journals of General George Paget, a guy who was a part of the Battle of Balaclava.
Tennyson Bio from The Victorian Web
A good place to start for information about Tennyson's life.
Here's another bio, plus a nice group of online texts of Tennyson's "greatest hits."
Summary of the Crimean War
Learn more about the Crimean War from the BBC
History of the Battle of Balaclava
Gives a good overview of the battle itself.