This poem is comprised of six numbered stanzas varying in length from six to twelve lines. Each line is in dimeter, which means it has two stressed syllables; moreover, each stressed syllable is followed by two unstressed syllables, making the rhythm dactylic. The use of “falling” rhythm, in which the stress is on the first beat of each metrical unit, and then “falls off” for the rest of the length of the meter, is appropriate in a poem about the devastating fall of the British brigade.
The rhyme scheme varies with each stanza. Often, Tennyson uses the same rhyme (and occasionally even the same final word) for several consecutive lines: “Flashed all their sabres bare / Flashed as they turned in air / Sab’ring the gunners there.” The poem also makes use of anaphora, in which the same word is repeated at the beginning of several consecutive lines: “Cannon to right of them / Cannon to left of them / Cannon in front of them.” Here the method creates a sense of unrelenting assault; at each line our eyes meet the word “cannon,” just as the soldiers meet their flying shells at each turn.
“The Charge of the Light Brigade” recalls a disastrous historical military engagement that took place during the initial phase of the Crimean War fought between Turkey and Russia (1854-56). Under the command of Lord Raglan, British forces entered the war in September 1854 to prevent the Russians from obtaining control of the important sea routes through the Dardanelles. From the beginning, the war was plagued by a series of misunderstandings and tactical blunders, one of which serves as the subject of this poem: on October 25, 1854, as the Russians were seizing guns from British soldiers, Lord Raglan sent desperate orders to his Light Cavalry Brigade to fend off the Russians. Finally, one of his orders was acted upon, and the brigade began charging—but in the wrong direction! Over 650 men rushed forward, and well over 100 died within the next few minutes. As a result of the battle, Britain lost possession of the majority of its forward defenses and the only metaled road in the area.
In the 21st century, the British involvement in the Crimean War is dismissed as an instance of military incompetence; we remember it only for the heroism displayed in it by Florence Nightingale, the famous nurse. However, for Tennyson and most of his contemporaries, the war seemed necessary and just. He wrote this poem as a celebration of the heroic soldiers in the Light Brigade who fell in service to their commander and their cause. The poem glorifies war and courage, even in cases of complete inefficiency and waste.
Unlike the medieval and mythical subject of “The Lady of Shalott” or the deeply personal grief of “Tears, Idle Tears,” this poem instead deals with an important political development in Tennyson’s day. As such, it is part of a sequence of political and military poems that Tennyson wrote after he became Poet Laureate of England in 1850, including “Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington” (1852) and “Riflemen, Form” (1859). These poems reflect Tennyson’s emerging national consciousness and his sense of compulsion to express his political views.
This poem is effective largely because of the way it conveys the movement and sound of the charge via a strong, repetitive falling meter: “Half a league, half a league / Half a league onward.” The plodding pace of the repetitions seems to subsume all individual impulsiveness in ponderous collective action. The poem does not speak of individual troops but rather of “the six hundred” and then “all that was left of them.” Even Lord Raglan, who played such an important role in the battle, is only vaguely referred to in the line “someone had blundered.” Interestingly, Tennyson omitted this critical and somewhat subversive line in the 1855 version of this poem, but the writer John Ruskin later convinced him to restore it for the sake of the poem’s artistry. Although it underwent several revisions following its initial publication in 1854, the poem as it stands today is a moving tribute to courage and heroism in the face of devastating defeat.