"Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!" he said. (lines 5-6)
This line tells us pretty much all we need to know about the plot of this poem. The soldiers in the Light Brigade have to "charge for the guns." Sound like a good idea? Probably not, and the Light Brigade knows it. Still, that's what war is all about – doing dangerous things that you normally never would, like riding your horse toward a bunch of cannon. Tennyson throws us right into the middle of this.
Oh, also, notice the "he" up there? We never find out who that is. The guys giving the orders are anonymous and invisible in this poem.
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered; (lines 20-21)
More intense war descriptions. Just imagine what it would be like to hear the rumble of cannon firing at you, sounding just like thunder. Don't forget that these guys aren't in a tank or a Humvee or something. They're on horseback, with nothing to protect them from the whizzing bullets and cannon fire.
Flashed all their sabres bare,
Flashed as they turned in air (lines 27-28)
This is a pretty romantic, studly image, isn't it? It makes the soldiers of the Light Brigade sound like medieval knights attacking a castle. We can just see those glittering swords shining through the smoke. Now, as to whether it's a good idea to attack cannon with a sword, we're not sure. That's kind of how it goes with the Light Brigade in this poem. You like them and feel for them and don't want them to die. At the same time though, there's something a little sad and doomed about these guys. The whole thing, the charge, the swords, the horses – it doesn't sound all that well thought-out, does it?
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke; (lines 32-3)
An exciting moment. It sort of sounds like the Light Brigade is winning right now, doesn't it? Can't you picture this moment in a movie, when the two armies collide? We imagine Russell Crowe out in front, swinging his sword and killing three enemy soldiers with every blow, riding through the smoke like it wasn't even there. OK, maybe that's just us, but you can still feel the clashing, noisy, smelly impact of this line, right?
Reeled from the sabre stroke
Shattered and sundered. (lines 35-6)
Even though this is a poem about war, it doesn't say much about real, brutal violence. Here's one spot where it definitely does, though. We feel the force and the agony of cutting swords splitting ("sundering") flesh and bone. Nice poetic style moment too – hear all those "s" sounds? "Sabre," "stroke," "shattered," "sundered." Cool, huh? That's why they paid Tennyson the big bucks.
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew (line 10-11)
You just can't keep the Light Brigade down. Apparently not a single one of the six hundred of them feels discouraged ("dismayed") at all. That's maybe a little hard to believe. We bet there were at least a couple of guys in that brigade who really wished they were somewhere else. Still, we can allow Tennyson a little exaggeration to make his point. We think line 11 is important. These guys aren't brave because they're stupid or ignorant. They know that they're facing almost certain death, but they charge anyway. Now that takes real guts.
Theirs but to do and die. (line 15)
This is a pretty terrific boiled-down expression of the courage of the Light Brigade. They just "do and die." Two little words that say a lot in a little bit of space. That simple, elegant phrasing has gone a long way toward making these some of the most famous, quotable lines in 19th-century English poetry.
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death, (lines 23-4)
Another neat way of showing us how brave the boys of the Brigade are. They ride "boldly" and "well," showing not just their guts but also their skill in the face of death. It's a neat little balancing act that Tennyson does here, contrasting the studly, fearless soldiers with the ugly, harsh image of the jaws of death. It helps to make the link between courage and tragedy that's such an important part of this poem.
Charging an army, while
All the world wondered. (lines 30-31)
Tennyson clearly expects us to be impressed by these guys. Well, who wouldn't be amazed by a bunch of guys on horses "charging an army"? This David and Goliath image (the underdog fearlessly taking on the impossible challenge) is meant to astonish Tennyson's readers, to fill us with awe. He imagines that "all the world" will be amazed. Suddenly the audience for this desperate charge is not just the people standing there on the battlefield, but the whole world, everyone who reads this poem and hears this story.
While horse and hero fell. (line 44)
Here Tennyson finally comes out and says what he's been implying all along: these men are heroes. In this moment, when it all comes to a sad and bloody end, we really feel their bravery. Heck, it's hard not to feel sort of bad for the horses, too.
All in the valley of Death (line 3)
We've mentioned this before, but in a poem without a lot of religious imagery, this is a major Biblical reference. Psalm 23 contains the famous line: "Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil." We don't know how much that means, and we don't think this is a particularly religious poem, but we do think this adds another layer, and mixes just a little bit of hope into the scary image of this valley.
Theirs but to do and die. (line 15)
The "doing" part is brave and exciting, all the charging and the slashing. The dying part strikes us as just sad. Under all the heroism and the thrill of battle, we think there's a mournful note in this poem. Finally, this is about the slaughter of young men, who were full of hope and loyalty and strength. No matter how you feel about war, it's hard not to feel sad about that. Even though Tennyson doesn't rub our faces in the idea of death right here, it's obviously a major theme.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred. (lines 41-2)
They didn't all die, and we never actually learn how many soldiers were killed, but Tennyson does let us know that not all six hundred men make it back. There's a kind of sad and silent subtraction that goes on in this poem. We don't see the bodies, or count the dead, but we know that they have disappeared. The "valley of Death" took its toll on the Light Brigade.
Stormed at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell. (lines 43-4)
More intense imagery, filled with the weight and the sadness of death. In a way, death is always in the air in this poem, and here it literally is. It's whizzing through the air in an angry storm around the heads of the soldiers. They get cut down, and that simple "horse and hero fell" is about the only moment where we have to confront the actual death of the soldiers in the Light Brigade. Here death isn't just a metaphor, it's the actual fact of a soldier getting cut down.
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred. (line 48-9)
Tennyson is very quiet about how many men died. In fact it's almost like it's a secret. Well, maybe more a kind of respectful distance. This isn't about the number killed and wounded. It's not a newspaper article, after all. It's about the fact of sacrifice and the death of brave young men.
Charge for the guns!" he said. (line 6)
This is the soldiers' job. As crazy as it sounds, when the commander tells the soldiers to charge, then they just go and do it, even when it means almost certain death. The reality of duty is one of the big themes in this poem. Tennyson is definitely saying that these men deserve to be honored for their willingness to sacrifice, for this sense of responsibility that they feel.
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered (lines 11-12)
There's no question that the speaker believes in duty, in the importance of soldiers doing what they had promised to do. Still, he goes out of his way to suggest that someone, somewhere, has screwed up. Big-time. The speaker won't directly accuse the commanders, but he does say that this charge is only happening because someone "blundered." Now that doesn't add up to some kind of criticism of war in general, but we sure detect a hint of bitterness, a sense that the guys who boss these soldiers around aren't worthy of the sacrifice they are asking for.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die. (lines 13-15)
This famous triplet (three rhyming lines in a row) is a great, simple summary of the sense of duty these men feel. They don't question the order, they don't ask why, they just charge in, fight, and die. This might make you admire how steadfast and courageous these men are, but it might also make you a little upset too. These men don't have any of the basic freedoms that we expect in our daily lives. When someone says they should go get slaughtered, they just have to go. Then again, maybe that's just the way war needs to be, and we need brave people willing to do what it takes. It's a big question, and we don't think Tennyson has an answer.
Noble six hundred! (line 55)
Finally, even if the system might be lousy, even if the orders were wrong, Tennyson thinks these men are heroes. In this poem, doing your job is what counts. They did as they were told, without regard for their own safety, and that has made them worthy of our admiration. It's got to matter that this is the closing line. These ordinary men have become as noble as kings just by doing their jobs, and that's the last word on the subject.
All the world wondered. (line 31)
Tennyson does a cool thing here (at least for poetry dorks like us). Without quite letting us know that he's doing it, he expands the Light Brigade's audience. Suddenly it's not just the folks on the battlefield, but the whole world that watches them. It's almost like they are instantly famous, as soon as they start the charge. He could have said "the Russian soldiers wondered" or something like that, but instead he blows it up. The point of this poem is to make these men famous, and he gets started right away.
While horse and hero fell. (line 44)
Maybe calling these men heroes seems obvious, but Tennyson waits a long time before dropping that particular word. We think that gives it even more impact. Remember, the idea that these men are heroes isn't just one theme of the poem, it's the whole point. This poem is meant to turn these men into heroes, or maybe to publicize their heroism. Having the poet laureate of England write a poem about you is pretty awesome PR, especially at this time.
When can their glory fade? (line 50)
Glory is a key word here. That's the ultimate respect and reputation that a soldier could hope for. To have people respect you is one thing, but to have glory coming out of you like a shining light, well, that's pretty cool, isn't it? This, by the way, is a great example of a rhetorical question. The answer of course is "<em>Never</em>."
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred! (lines 54-5)
Tennyson is pretty much giving us an order here. The Light Brigade did their duty, now it's our duty to honor them. Tennyson isn't asking us if we'd like to think about honoring the Brigade. He's telling us that we need to respect their glory.