Tuesday, May 6, 2008

What's It All About, Alfie?

Here we go, guys! We have a ripe one today from one of Queen Victoria’s finest – Alfred, Lord Tennyson. In an age when poets ruled the Earth, he was the biggest, meanest celebredon ever. Imagine if you combined Stephen King’s popularity with Umberto Ecco’s intellectual prestige... You wouldn’t come anywhere near Tennyson’s repute. He was bigger than Star Wars! Bigger than Buffy the Vampire Slayer! Bigger than The Matrix would be if the second two movies hadn’t sucked!

And how is he regarded today? Well, he’s still thought of as a great poet. On the other hand, he did write stuff like “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” And in order to explain what’s wrong with it, I first have to tell you about the historical event.

The Charge of the Light Brigade was a cavalry charge which occurred during the Battle of Balaclava on October 25, 1854 during the Crimean War. The Light Brigade was commanded by the Earl of Cardigan. In response to (possibly garbled or misunderstood) orders from Lord Raglan, he led 673 men in a charge straight up a valley, between Russian forces, at the massed Russian artillery one mile distant. Which gave the gunners lots of time to mow down both the cavalrymen and their horses.

The light brigade actually reached the guns and forced the Russians back from them. But the Russian forces had superior strength and re-took the artillery, forcing the Light Brigade back in their turn. 118 of their men were killed in the charge, 127 were wounded, and more than half their horses were killed. History has given the French Marshal Pierre Bosquet the last word. Witnessing the heroic and stupid charge, he was heard to murmur “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre” (“It’s magnificent, but it is not war.”)

The British public, of course, ate it up. Pointless heroism? They thought it was just the coolest thing ever. Tennyson read a newspaper account and wrote the following extremely famous poem expressing exactly that sentiment.

The Charge of the Light Brigade
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!
"Charge for the guns!" he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

"Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air,
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel'd from the sabre stroke
Shatter'd and sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.

And yet their glory has faded. George MacDonald Fraser, in Flashman at the Charge (the Flashman books are brilliantly funny and recommended to all who would like to painlessly absorb a little history) has Flashman, suffering from a heroic case of flatulence, unwillingly take part in the famous charge, farting and screaming in terror every foot of the way.

So why the big shift in attitude? World War I. Multitudes of young British men went off to war impelled by one of Horace’s odes to think that Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (“It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country”), and discovered that it was anything but. They died in droves and suffered horribly -- look up a good article on mustard gas if you really want to be grossed out -- and all for no sensible reason that anybody’s been able to discover.

More on that tomorrow. And the day after, a word or two to rehabilitate Tennyson’s rep.

All best,


Ian Sales said...

Just like to say I'm enjoying this blog. And also - 'Dulce et Decorum Est', Wilfred Owen: the last word on the subject. Although I rather like:

Tel-el-Eisa is Jesus' hill,
Or so they say:
There the bitter guns were never still,
Throwing up yellow plumes of sand by day
And piercing the night across.
There the desert telephone's long lonely line expires,
Ends with a tangle of looping wires
And one last leaning cross.
John Jarmain

movingfinger said...

Tennyson reading The Charge of the Light Brigade.

Michael Swanwick said...

Tennyson reading the Charge! What a rich world we live in!

I hadn't seen "Tel-el-Eisa" before. I'll have to look into John Jarmain.