The Charge Of The Light Brigade And Dulce Et Decorum Est
In 1798 a new era began in English poetry called the Romantic age. This age provoked the thinking of new radical ideas and thoughts and the writing of these ideas in poems. The poets included Samuel T Coleridge, Alfred Lord Tennyson and William Wordsworth. Some of their ideas and thoughts include:
1) Rebellion against tyrannical and despotic governments and leaders. These feelings were inspired by the recent French and American revolutions.
2) Strong sense of beauty in the natural world around them. Some romantic poets even took to worshipping nature!
3) Sympathy with poor, humble people.
4) Vivid imaginations. The Romantic poets often made fantastic new ethereal worlds.
5) Interest in ancient legends and traditions.
6) A sense of melancholy and loneliness.
7) They often expressed much vitality and emotion in their works.
In this essay I will try to see if the romantic poem I will be examining has these ideas incorporated in it. The two poems I will be looking at are both on war but by different authors, with different ideas about war, in different times. I shall examine ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, by Alfred Lord Tennyson and ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, by Wilfred Owen. I will compare the two poet’s attitudes towards war by examining the context, structure style and language of both poets.
The first poem I will be examining is ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, by Alfred Lord Tennyson. The poem is a secondary account of the infamous charge the English Light Brigade made on the 25th October 1854 in the Battle of Balaclava which was part of the Crimean War.
To examine the poem we need to know the historical background of the things it is describing. To put it plainly the Crimean War really had nothing whatsoever to do with Great Britain. It was a war between Turkey and Russia but as Britain was sided with Turkey and did not want Russia to find a colonial interest in British India, Britain helped to fight Russia.
Now back to the actual Charge of The Light Brigade. The Charge went wrong because a military leader (Lord Cardigan), interpreted the wrong orders from his superior Lord Raglan. The Brigade ended up charging into the wrong valley and came face to face with the Russian Artillery. They were mowed down mercilessly
Alfred Lord Tennyson was not a soldier in the Light Brigade, he wasn’t in any of the armed forces and he wasn’t even present at the battle. In actual fact Tennyson was the Poet Laureate of Britain and was inspired to write the poem based on a newspaper article he had read on the Charge.
The main idea Tennyson is providing in his poem is the fact that he thinks the Light Brigade should be honoured by everyone and his poem is one way of honouring them. He is also using the Romantic notion of dying in battle being very heroic.
The tone of the poem actually surprised me. I thought it would be like a sombre epitaph, written on a gravestone style but in fact it seems to have the feel of a funeral party which is celebrating the bravery and life of the Light Brigade rather than being sunk in thoughts of death.
The poem it self is written in six stanzas of varying lengths. This reminds me of six scenes in a movie, the middle ones being a climax and the ones leading up to it slowly setting the scene for a big showdown. The ones after the climax seem to be the ‘calm after the storm’ and quietly conclude the poem.
The rhyming in this poem is few and irregular but repetition is used a lot in this poem (stanzas one, three and five), and it adds to the war theme of this poem e.g. Stanza 1: if you say the ‘half a leagues’ out loud and fairly fast it will sound like galloping horses, i.e. the Light Brigade itself who were cavalry. I think this is a very good use of literary rhythm and think it’s very clever.
I will now go through the poem thoroughly and pick out important words and language devices. Firstly I believe the narrator of the poem knew from the beginning that the Light Brigade were doomed as he uses the phrase ‘into the valley of death rode the six hundred’, (line 7). The use of ‘valley of death’ is actually an allusion to Psalm 23 of the Bible. In this verse it carries on to say ‘I will fear no evil as you are with me’. I find this ironic as the Bible is saying that God will protect them but in actual fact the Light Brigade was annihilated.
Another thing I find good about this poem is the fact that Tennyson tries to make the poem sound as realistic as possible and is trying to draw the reader in. This is evident from the fact that he uses ‘charge for the guns!’ (line 6) as the command for the Light Brigade. This sounds very real and militaristic and makes the reader feel as though they really have been sucked into a battlefield rather than something like ‘then they charged’.
Tennyson being a Romantic poet uses many Romantic ideas in this poem. For example when he says ‘their’s not to make reply…their’s but to do and die’, he is saying that even though someone’s made a mistake and the soldiers know it they, they will still carry out their orders, bravely, even though they will die in the process.
While Tennyson believes the Light Brigade are being very heroic he doesn’t believe that this is a fairy tale and none of them will die or get injured. This is proved in lines 18, 19 and 20 when the poet says ‘cannon to the left/cannon to the right/ cannon to the front of them’. We can gather that having cannons blowing off in front of a group of men with horses is not the best tactic for the British as most of the will die or get injured from having 14 pound iron balls hitting them.
Another Romantic notion Tennyson is using is the idea of not giving up whatever happens, even death. For example in line 22 he writes that the Light Brigade were ‘stormed at with shot and shell’. This means that even though the soldiers are dying, being injured and watching their comrades fall, each one continues his job to the end. Even today we find this idea romantic and heroic, how many hundreds of movie battle scenes have guys with 6 arrows in them still fighting.
Even Tennyson’s idea of the Light Brigade’s weapons is Romantic: They are described as having ‘sabres’ (line 27), which may not sound especially romantic, but he could have simply described them as swords. Sabres are traditionally from Arabia and Persia, countries with very big romantic connotations themselves, (think Arabian Nights and Omar Khayaam). Therefore I believe that the word ‘sabre’ is very well used and very subtly put.
Also the style of fighting in Tennyson’s is different: while today we will shoot at an enemy soldier or throw a grenade at him, the Light Brigade weren’t doing that; they were ‘flashing their sabres bare'(line 27). Well it was the Romantic era of warfare as well as we have mentioned. No nuclear bombs, poison gasses or rocket propelled grenades; instead we have velvet uniforms with ornately decorated pistols, curved sabres, medals glinting in the sun and brave battle horses.
However Tennyson wants us to believe that the Light Brigade held out for a long time and fought their hardest and were winning some of the time. This is proved when he writes that the Russian troops have been left ‘shattered and sundered’ (line 36). This is good because it makes the reader hope that the Light Brigade has gained the upper hand and aren’t going to die.
Tennyson seems to be a master of keeping the reader hooked to a poem. When he writes ‘then they rode back but not/Not the six hundred’, (lines 37 and 38), he is telling the reader that some of the Brigade have been eliminated. He does not say all or most but he makes the reader hope and hope that only twenty or thirty have died.
However as the remnants of the Light Brigade retreat back they are mowed down by cannon balls. This is proved in line 41 where Tennyson says ‘cannon behind them’. The effect of this line is that the reader will be prepared for the death of the Light Brigade, which is inevitable, but it is not blunt or boring as it would be if Tennyson said ‘then the last few died’.
Tennyson’s feelings on how heroic it is to die in battle are very different from todays. Where, (in line 50), he asks ‘when can their [the Light Brigade] glory fade?’ it seems to be a rather stupid comment to make as these days the charge is looked at as an unsolicited disaster, Tennyson is actually calling it ‘glorious’ which shows how different ideas of war were in the Romantic era.
We can tell, however, that Tennyson feels sorry for the Light Brigade, for example, when he uses the word ‘noble’ to describe them in line 55. This is good as it shows that the Light Brigade’s memory is being preserved forever in a good way and not as a group of blundering idiots.
To me all of Tennyson’s feelings on the charge can be summed up into one word: honour (as he uses in lines 53 and 54). Dying in a battle was honourable, being remembered is honourable, and being part of a massacre is honourable. I think that since Tennyson never was a soldier this romantic idea was his only opinion about wars and fighting them. However it isn’t my view as we will see in the next paragraph.
I definitely like this poem from a poetry point: it is well written with a good choice of words and is definitely a good and fitting tribute to the Light Brigade and no doubt they will be treated like heroes forever. However, I do not agree with the poet. I do not find dying in a war a heroic feat, unless you have saved many people in the process. I definitely do not think going to the battle field and killing other people for such a futile reason as ‘protecting your allies’ that heroic. Seeing people’s heads and limbs flying through the air as they have been dismembered by a cannonball, and having to do that kind of thing yourself, would rather make you the victim.
I certainly admire the soldier’s braveness even when they knew the order was blundered, to obey unquestioningly. That is what I believe is brave, but they did not die heroically or as a sacrifice, I mean they didn’t save the country, or another regiment in the process; they were simply wasted lives because of a mistake, and that is not deliberate braveness. So in that light, I believe Tennyson is wrong. Definitely the poem has made me think but only as to what I would do if I were one of the Light Brigade.
The next poem I will be analysing is ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, by Wilfred Owen. This poem is similar to ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ in a few ways. Firstly, and most obviously, both of them are about war. However, whereas ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ contains lots of Romantic imagery and ideas this poem doesn’t. Like ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. This poem also acknowledges that soldiers have a hard time in battles, especially when the odds are against them. However, in contrast to ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ Owen believes that having a hard time doesn’t necessarily make you a hero.
The poem ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ is set on a World War I battlefield. It is a first hand account (Owen being a soldier in the battle and not just a newspaper reader like Tennyson!) of a gas attack of which there were many in World War I. What is fundamentally important when comparing these two poems is the fact that one is from the mid 19th century while other is about 75 years later. Many things have changed, the map of the world for one: Britain now had a prosperous empire that covered a quarter of the world.
Anaesthetics were being used all the time in medicine and war had also changed: soldiers didn’t fight with sabres and guns that took thirty seconds to load; they used tanks, automatic rifles, machine guns and even aeroplanes. Wars were no longer arranged over vast fields, now soldiers fought (and died in their hundreds of thousands), for a little, wasted patch of land ten metres square which was filled with unexploded shells and barbed wire.
The main idea I think Owen is providing in his poem is the fact that wars aren’t romantic, dying in a battle isn’t heroic and getting yourself involved in a war should not be done for such reasons as it was in World War I (looking good, being a hero, nothing else to do, etc).
The tone of his poem is rather grim and when I read it I get a mental image of Owen shouting ‘blast Tennyson and those callow romantics this is what war and dying in it is really like.
The structure of this poem is in four stanzas and every line in the poem (starting with the first), rhymes with the one after the one after it. So line 1 rhymes with line 3, line 2 with line 4, line 3 with line 5, line 5 with line 7 and so on. Generally I like poems which rhyme better than ones that don’t, and at first I thought this poem didn’t rhyme, but as I read it out and studied it, it fell into place. I especially like this poem because of its hidden, very creative rhyming scheme which must have been very hard for Owen to make a whole poem like this.
I will now start going through the poem and picking out important and interesting words and devices. Firstly, Owen does not waste any time making it look like his brigade is living in luxury. In line 1 he uses the word ‘beggars’, which makes the reader think of terrible conditions, sleeping rough, disease, poverty and rags, the general things which are associated with homeless people.
He also goes on and shows his brigade’s condition is not like what would be expected for a ‘hero’. In line 2 he calls him and his brigade ‘hags’ which instantly banishes thought of velvet uniforms and shiny swords (like Charge of the Light Brigade). Instead it brings in thoughts of disease, rats and poverty.
Owen from the outset of the poem shows this isn’t going to be a romantic charge. He describes the conditions in which his brigade is walking in as ‘sludge’, (line 2). This is good because it banishes from the reader’s mind a heroic and conquering army, and instead shows one wandering through a place likened to a sewer.
This idea of no gallant charges is enforced in line 5, where Owen describes them as ‘marching asleep’. This shows the reader that this army is tired and sleepy and not ready to charge through enemy lines like ‘the Charge of the Light Brigade’.
Of course Owen is also saying that the soldier’s outward appearance is shattered as well as their inward. He does this in line 5 where he says ‘many had lost their boots’. Not only does this show the reader that the men are really in a poor state, but it also enforces the idea of how different this is to the pristine uniforms of the ‘Light Brigade’. We can also gather ourselves from the poem the fact that walking around without boots in damp, icy, slippery, rat infested trenches will give you painful infections like athlete’s foot if you’re lucky and more serious conditions such as frostbite if you’re not so lucky.
The true nature of not giving up and carrying on fighting, whatever your injury is shown by Owen in line 6 ‘ but men limped on blood shod’. This is good as it makes the reader understand that the romanticising of war is completely different from real life.
Another idea which is visible in ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, but is practically invisible in ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, is what will happen to the soldiers after their battles are done. In this poem, in line 6 Owen says that ‘all [the soldiers] went lame, all blind’. This shows the reader that the consequences of signing up for armed combat are much more far reaching than what just happens on the battlefield: you could be maimed for life, or go blind.
As I mentioned in my introductory paragraph for this poem, times have changed and weapons have evolved. Killing is no longer done with gold sabres and silver cannons. Now ‘gas’ (line 9) is used frequently. The reader will find out war is no longer a heroic charge but a long, exhausting campaign that you have look over your shoulder, continuously for a shell with poison gas inside.
Again tying in with the fact that war has far reaching consequences, we see that simply seeing your comrade’s die in front of you is enough to give you psychological problems. For instance, in line 15 Owen says ‘in all my dreams, before my helpless sight, he plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. Often soldiers who saw this kind of thing and were badly affected by it were sent to sanatoriums where trained army psychologists would help them get over it. Certainly nothing like this is seen in ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. This is very effective piece of ammunition to use in Owens’s fight against romantic ideas of war which are so far from the truth.
Owen definitely is not a romantic because in his poem he provides many graphic representations which Tennyson did not. For example in line 19 he says that one of the injured soldiers had ‘white eyes writhing in his face’. Owen has got to the point and hasn’t dilly dallied about going on about heroics; he has got to the point and expressed his view. Again this is good as it describes the reality of getting injured in a war to the reader, and it doesn’t seem very nice or heroic.
Owens’s view of how horribly painful war is for the soldiers is expressed (and strengthened) in line 22 where he describes the injured soldier as having ‘froth corrupted lungs’. This will help the reader find out that the young soldiers didn’t die heroically but more like horribly. If we probe a little under the surface, the word ‘corrupted’ could be used by Owen in a political sense and not just medical. He could be talking about how young men are corrupted by snazzy, persuasive recruitment posters, back in their homeland.
According to Owen the root of the ‘war is glorious’ problem is traced back to childhood. In lines 25 and 26 he says ‘my friend you would not tell with such high zest, to children ardent for some desperate glory’. This is good as it makes the reader think back into their own past and childhood and think of any war related triumphs or games they may have done or played. It could also be referring to the soldiers being young and naï¿½ve and the recruitment posters gradually selling them these lies, in the hope that they will join up and think they are heroes.
Finally in the last line of the poem goes as far as to say that dying as a hero and dying for honour in battle are downright lies. In lines 27 and 28 he says ‘the old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori’. This phrase means ‘it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country’ and was first used by the Roman playwright Horace thousands of years ago. It is still quoted by military leaders today in basic training and before battles. I think Owens’s view on this phrase is that it is very dangerous and should not be told especially to ‘desperate (and impressionable) children’. This point of view is a hundred percent different to Tennyson’s and I need not explain why.
I like this poem not only as a piece of good poetry (like ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’) but also its morals and the poet’s beliefs are that of mine (unlike ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’). It is very effective in carrying across its message of war being bad and not being honourable to die in one. It shows you that the poet thinks young men are lured into war by generals who just sit on the sidelines and will die healthily in their sleep decades after the war. It shows us what happens to the ordinary men who join up, their expectations from childhood and the real thing. This poem has also made me understand something I wondered about before reading it: why there are people whose jobs are army psychologists and why there are buildings used by the military called sanatoriums.
As I come to the end of my essay I’ve learnt two very important points of view that were used in the past. Firstly about the chivalrous Romantic era on which countless war movies have such ideas in. Honour and fighting till the end whatever the outcome are the main ideas. This will certainly appeal to people who want to hold that point of view but for a realist like me I see through the flashing sabres and the valley of death and see butchered men and mourning families at home.
Tennyson never incorporates that in his poem. Secondly I come to the deeply dark and realist first hand views of Owen who explains to me the real story and no beating about the bush. His views are crystal and have made me think rather than the non human termed, honour for our land thoughts of Tennyson. Owen actually made me think about the men being the uniforms. To sum up I like both poems very much but it’s clear to me what’s real and what’s not, what’s about human beings and not ‘soldiers’ and all the word suggests (brave, never sick, willing to die) and finally what’s moral to me as a human and what’s not.