SHARPEN your patriotic sabres: an American academic is riding roughshod over one of our best-known poems, The Charge of the Light Brigade.
Writing in the Guardian (where else?) Professor Ted Widmer – who is apparently a ‘historian, writer, librarian, and musician who served as a speechwriter in the Clinton White House’ – dismisses the classic verse by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, as a ‘treacly account of derring-do’, an ‘insipid memento’ and ‘a puddle of Victorian piety’.
Well, I for one want to knock this know-all off his high horse. How dare he diss The Charge of the Light Brigade? It’s one of the few pieces of poetry most people know at least a little of – superbly encapsulating its subject, memorably phrased, perfectly paced and, if you look beneath the surface, quite profound.
It commemorates the disastrous cavalry action which took place on October 25, 1854, during the Crimean War, when British forces were tussling with the Russians near Balaclava.
Because of an ambiguous order by the British commander-in-chief, Lord Raglan, and the thick-headedness of his immediate subordinates, 670 men of the Light Brigade were sent charging along a valley head-on into a battery of Muscovite guns. Slaughter ensued – the toll was 118 killed, 127 wounded and 60 taken prisoner.
A report of the charge by war correspondent William Russell, who witnessed it, was published in the Times on November 13, 1854. Having read this, Tennyson, who was Poet Laureate, wrote the verse on December 2, reportedly taking only a few minutes. An early version appeared in the Examiner on December 9 and the final version was later included in an anthology.
The poem became enormously popular and Tennyson even recited it for a wax cylinder recording, which can still be heard.
So does The Charge of the Light Brigade deserve Widmer’s snide critique? Of course it doesn’t. He seems to be making the common mistake of judging the past by the mores of today. ‘A puddle of Victorian piety’ is a slick phrase, but contains more smugness than substance.
From the moment the tragic charge happened, everyone knew it was an appalling cock-up – brave men sent to their death by incompetents and buffoons.
But, as Poet Laureate, Tennyson couldn’t come out with a blistering rhyme ripping into the military leadership. He had to be more measured. So he took his tone from the leading article accompanying Russell’s report in the Times, which said: ‘The British soldier will do his duty, even to certain death and is not paralysed by the feeling that he is the victim of some hideous blunder.’
This was the point Tennyson firmly drove home – the top brass had mucked things up, but the ordinary soldiers had steadfastly done their duty. The whole purpose of the poem is to honour the bravery of the soldiers, who obeyed orders even though they knew they would probably be killed – ‘theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.’
Okay, it all may sound ‘treacly’ to a Harvard-educated pointyhead such as Professor Ted Widmer. But however much he and his ilk may mock The Charge of the Light Brigade, it remains a truth well told by Tennyson.
When can their glory fade?