Study Guide

The Charge of the Light Brigade Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay

By Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay

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.

Valley of Death

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.

  • Line 3: This is the first mention of that spooky valley. It's a really strong poetic image. It lets us know we're not just reading a newspaper report or a dry summary of the facts. We think it may also be a reference to Psalm 23, which talks about the "valley of the shadow of death." When we read about this valley, we almost imagine something post-apocalyptic, like a location out of Fallout or that '80s movie Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (which you should see, even though it has nothing to do with Tennyson).
  • Line 7: Tennyson uses this name several times. In fact, it becomes a kind of refrain in the early parts of the poem. It focuses our attention on the courage of these men, how fearless they must be to charge into a place like the valley.
  • Line 16: One more time. It's hard not to notice that not much happens in this poem. The whole thing rests on this one brave, reckless act happening in one place (the valley). That's why Tennyson keeps repeating this image. He wants to burn it into our brains.

Jaws of Death

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.

  • Line 24: This poem is full of little variations on a theme. There aren't a hundred completely different images and ideas. Instead, there's a kind of play with different ways of saying the same thing. Saying the Brigade rode into the "jaws of Death" isn't completely different from "the valley of Death," but it does make a difference. Those jaws are scary.
  • Line 46: Also, check out how much this poem repeats its imagery. It's a major way of building the overall rhythm. Tennyson establishes the key elements, and then hammers them home repeatedly. It's a way of keeping us focused on the simple, tragic facts. Now, all of a sudden, we're back out the other side. At least a few of the soldiers have escaped the jaws.

Mouth of Hell

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.

  • Line 25: A powerful image of evil and fear and danger. We can almost see the smoke swirling, the fire spitting. They say war is hell, and our idea of the underworld fits pretty well with what the Light Brigade must have seen.
  • Line 47: In line 25, they are going "into the mouth" and now they are coming "Back from the mouth." Even though the phrase is the same, the change in direction also changes the image. In a way, this poem is like a film that runs forward and then backward. In the first half they charge, in the second half they retreat, but it looks pretty much the same both times. Still, we'd rather be headed out of the "mouth of hell" than straight into it.

The Light Brigade

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.

  • Line 5: It's a pretty cool name, isn't it? They're not called something boring, like Company B, or the 10th Regiment. They're the Light Brigade, which sure makes them sound like the good guys. Think of all the things you associate with "light." Sunshine, goodness, feeling "light at heart." It's all good stuff, right? Though the Charge of the Light Brigade was an actual historical event, we think Tennyson, with a great poet's ear for language, would have recognized all of these positive associations.
  • Line 9: Here's the Brigade again. We don't hear about individual soldiers like Frank and Clive and Owen. It's just a mass, like a force of nature sweeping down the valley. This poem is all about the unity of these men, their strength as a whole. The more they seem like one being, the better.
  • Line 54: One last mention of the Brigade. Again, we think it's important that the Light Brigade already sounds like something you should honor. Their nobility is almost built into their name.

The Guns

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.

  • Line 6: Here the guns are just an idea, a destination for the Brigade. They symbolize the challenge of war, the call to heroic deeds, the threat of the enemy. It's also just seems like a crazy idea, to charge a bunch of horses toward a wall of guns.
  • Lines 18-20: Now the guns (here he calls them "cannon") are very real and very deadly. At the beginning of the charge, the Brigade was headed toward the guns, but now they are completely surrounded by them. They are a totally faceless enemy, just a threat from every side. We don't know yet who's behind them or why.

Sabres

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.

  • Line 27: Soldiers mounted on horses have always had a kind of romantic image. A knight in shining armor would never walk, would he? Prince Charming always shows up on a horse, and if he has to slay a dragon, he does it with his sword. Tennyson didn't know about Disney cartoons, but we think he was definitely tapping into the romance of the mounted warrior, figures like King Arthur and his knights. The flashing sabres make these guys sound pretty darn cool, as far as we're concerned.
  • Line 29: Now the soldiers in the Light Brigade aren't just waving the swords around; they're using them to kill their enemies. This is important. According to Tennyson's version of the story, the Brigade didn't just make a brave charge and get slaughtered – they also killed many of their enemies, enemies who were better equipped than them (these enemies have guns, you know). Here the sabre becomes a symbol of the power of the British army.
  • Line 35: Another moment where it looks like the Russians are getting the rough end of this fight. In the end it's implied that the English lost badly in this battle, but right here it seems like the sabres are doing their work.

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