We think "The Charge of the Light Brigade" is a textbook example of a poem that uses its language to recreate the sounds it's describing. In this case, that sound would be the noises of battle.
The dactylic meter of the poem reminds us of the booming of cannon, the way there's a heavy explosion at first that dies away slowly. (Not sure what dactylic meter is? Check out "Form and Meter.") Read this line out loud: "Cannon to right of them" (39). Hear how the word CANNON explodes on your ear? Then everything else in the line gets less emphasis, dying away as if it was echoing back and forth off the walls of the "valley of Death." BOOM-boom-boom.
We also hear the clattering of hoof beats everywhere in these lines: "Boldly they rode, and well" (line 23). That first word doesn't pound on your ear like the "Cannon" in line 39. Instead, we hear, a steady, "Rat tat a tat," like horses running desperately across the hard baked earth of the valley. All these noises make a sort of concert and, in our opinion, help to pull you completely into the world of the poem.
This title, "The Charge of the Light Brigade," is pretty darn descriptive, and not much of a riddle. It tells us who the main characters are (the Light Brigade) and what they did (charge!). We imagine that when this poem was published, in 1854, most English readers would have been familiar with the basic events – this really was a "current events" kind of poem.
On the other hand, if you weren't born in the 1800s (and we're guessing you weren't), you probably don't now what a "Light Brigade" is. Here's a quick explanation: a "brigade" is group of soldiers. They're 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. Still, there's a kind of lucky double meaning here, since the soldiers in this poem practically glow with a kind of holy goodness and courage.
The poem is based on an actual historical event: the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Battle of Balaclava (which happened during the Crimean War). This went down in Crimea in 1854.
Here's the quick and dirty version of the history: The Crimean War, which took place between 1853 and 1856. This was essentially a battle between Britain (with its allies) and Russia for control over the territory occupied by the crumbling Ottoman Empire. In late 1854, the allied troops tried to capture the Russian city of Sebastopol, and the Battle of Balaclava was one of several fights in that campaign. During this battle, the British commanders ordered a disastrous charge by the Light Brigade, which took many casualties. That's the basic story. For history buffs, the web is packed with great resources about the Crimean War (we've linked to a few in our "Best of the Web" section).
The most interesting part of the setting, though, is definitely that "valley of Death" – check out "Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay" for some discussion on that.
Have you ever seen a big-budget Hollywood movie about World War II? There's always a lot of fighting and action, and then, sometimes, at the end, it cuts to an old veteran remembering the war and his lost buddies. We imagine that guy narrating this poem.
To us, it seems like the speaker was there. He remembers the charge, and he wants to pass on the story of the heroes who charged and died on that day. You can hear the power of his memories and his patriotism behind every word. He sees the tragedy of war, but also the positive side, the things it brings out in men. He wants you to see this too. He wants to stir you up, to make sure you don't forget. Sometimes he might get a little carried away, maybe he's a little sentimental sometimes, but it's impossible not to like him and respect him.
That's how we picture the speaker. How do you see him?
It takes a moment to figure out where we are when this poem starts, and what's going on. Once you've done that, though, the language is pretty clear and straightforward. Should make for an easy climb.
Tennyson had a super-long career and wrote a ton of poems, so we're not going to try to fit them all under one big umbrella. Let's just deal with the second half of his career, after he became the Poet Laureate.
Being England's Poet Laureate is basically a government job, where you become the country's official poet, and write poems for inaugurations, funerals, etc. It makes sense that the Poet Laureate couldn't be too "out there" and would want to take a traditional stand, both in his style and the issues he covered. In addition, Tennyson was a really popular, widely read poet by this time, and readers appreciated a fairly steady, calm approach. That's not to say that he couldn't be exciting or fierce or interesting at this point in his life, but he generally wasn't experimenting too much with style or subject matter.
Let's tackle the way this poem rhymes first, because it's kind of interesting and unusual. Some poems have very regular rhyme patterns, with the same sounds repeating every line or every other line. That's not true in this poem.
The rhymes in "The Charge of the Light Brigade" aren't predictable, but they're still an important part of the way the poem is put together. These rhymes can happen in all kinds of ways. Sometimes a bunch of lines in a row will have rhyming words at the end, sometimes it will be every other line, sometimes two words will almost rhyme but not quite (we call that near rhyme or slant rhyme).
The easiest way to describe this is just to show you. We'll put rhyming words in bold, and also tag each sound at the end of a line with a letter, so you can see which ones match up. Let's look at Stanza 2, where there's a lot of interesting rhyming going on:
"Forward, the Light Brigade!" (A)
Was there a man dismayed? (A)
Not though the soldier knew (B)
Someone had blundered. (C)
Theirs not to make reply, (D)
Theirs not to reason why, (D)
Theirs but to do and die. (D)
Into the valley of Death (E)
Rode the six hundred. (C)
See, we told you there was a lot going on here. Let's break it down a little.
We start out with two lines in a row that rhyme: Brigade, dismayed. That's called a rhyming couplet.
Then we have a line that doesn't rhyme with anything else: knew.
Now take a look at the fourth line. See how that sort of rhymes with the last line: blundered, hundred? The words sound kind of alike, but they also stick in your mouth a little. That's what we call a near rhyme or slant rhyme, and they're easy to find in this poem.
The last thing to check out here, and maybe the most noticeable part of the whole section, is the group of three rhyming lines in the middle: reply, why, die. We call three rhyming lines in a row a "triplet."
OK, we'll leave off our discussion of rhyme at this point, but poke around a little in the other sections if you feel like it. Every one has interesting rhymes.
Now for the meter. This part of the poem's form is definitely less complicated, once you get the hang of it. The first thing we'll look for in each line is which syllables are emphasized. We call that the "stress." In general, there are two main stresses in each line of "The Charge of the Light Brigade." Here, we'll show you how that works again, using part of section 2. We'll put the stressed syllables in bold:
"Forward, the | Light Brigade!"
Was there a | man dismayed?
Not though the | soldier knew
Someone had | blundered.
Theirs not to | make reply,
Theirs not to | reason why,
Theirs but to | do and die.
See the pattern there? The stressed syllables come at the beginning and in the middle of the line. They are always followed by two unstressed (or less stressed) syllables. Try saying that first line out loud: "For-ward, the/ Light Bri-gade!" Hear that rhythm? DUM-da-da DUM-da-da.
See how we've split the lines up with slashes? Those little groups of syllables between the slashes are called "feet" (silly, we know, but that's how it is). When the feet look like this – with a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables – we call that a dactyl. When there are two feet per line, that's called dimeter. So the full, fancy English teacher name for the rhythm of this poem is dactylic dimeter. Snazzy terminology is all well and good, but what we really want is for you to be able to hear that steady heartbeat rhythm running through the poem: DUM-da-da DUM-da-da DUM-da-da. Cool, huh?
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
The valley of Death is the first major visual image we get, and it haunts the whole poem. The valley is the setting, the place where the charge takes place, but it doesn't quite seem to exist in the real world. It feels supernatural. We imagine dusty, baked earth, vultures circling overhead, maybe some evil laughter. OK, that's probably too much, but you get the idea, right? A super-nasty spot.
When you give human or animal features to an idea like death, that's called personification. That's an important technique here, because it turns death into a kind of character in this poem. It's not just the name of a valley anymore – it becomes a living thing ready to gobble these guys up. We think it's key to notice that Tennyson capitalizes the word Death – another way to emphasize its importance.
Here's another major personification. Notice that it isn't that different from the "jaws of Death." Tennyson moves in little steps here, and often loops back to the same image over and over, making tweaks each time.
We're not sure how hard to push this one, but here goes: before we knew what a "Light Brigade" was, we thought this poem had something to do with actual light, like beams of sunlight. We know now that the brigade is called "light" to distinguish them from "heavy" cavalry, who played a different role in battle. (See "What's Up with the Title?" for more on this.) Still, we think it's hard not to associate the Light Brigade with a kind of holy light. Maybe that wasn't the first thing Tennyson thought of, but poetic language often takes advantage of all the meanings of words.
Guns and cannon are a key image for the enemy, for the threat of death. Tennyson doesn't waste much time telling us why this fight is happening, or who's attacking who. Maybe his readers at the time already knew the story, but for folks today the details are pretty sketchy. There is one mention of the "Cossack and Russian" soldiers, but mostly all we hear about is this big scary wall of guns.
These sabers the Light Brigade carries are a great symbol of their heroism and the power. On the one hand, there's something noble and a little crazy about charging a cannon with a sword. On the other hand, they do some real damage with these sabres, at least according to Tennyson.
Plenty of violence, not a hint of sex. Sorry, folks.