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Summary

The poem tells the story of a brigade consisting of 600 soldiers who rode on horseback into the valley of death
for half a league (about one and a half miles). They were obeying a command to charge the enemy forces that
had been seizing their guns.
Not a single soldier was discouraged or distressed by the command to charge forward, even though all the
soldiers realized that their commander had made a terrible mistake: Someone had blundered. The role of the
soldier is to obey and not to make reply...not to reason why, so they followed orders and rode into the valley
of death.
The 600 soldiers were assaulted by the shots of shells of canons in front and on both sides of them. Still, they
rode courageously forward toward their own deaths: Into the jaws of Death / Into the mouth of hell / Rode the
six hundred.
The soldiers struck the enemy gunners with their unsheathed swords (sabres bare) and charged at the enemy
army while the rest of the world looked on in wonder. They rode into the artillery smoke and broke through the
enemy line, destroying their Cossack and Russian opponents. Then they rode back from the offensive, but they
had lost many men so they were not the six hundred any more.
Canons behind and on both sides of the soldiers now assaulted them with shots and shells. As the brigade rode
back from the mouth of hell, soldiers and horses collapsed; few remained to make the journey back.
The world marvelled at the courage of the soldiers; indeed, their glory is undying: the poem states these noble
600 men remain worthy of honor and tribute today.
Form
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 /
Sabring 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.
Commentary
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 chargingbut
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 Tennysons 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 Tennysons 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 poems 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.

Stanza 1 Summary

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Get out the microscope, because were going through this


poem line-by-line.
Lines 1-2
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,

This poem starts with the same three words, "Half a league" repeated
three times.

First of all, what does that mean? Well, a league is an old way to measure
distance, and it was equal to about 3 miles. So half a league is roughly a
mile and a half.

Second of all, why start a poem like this? Well, we think it sets up a nice
rhythm, a kind of rolling, hypnotic sound. Maybe even a bit like a military
march: Left! Left! Left, right, left!

We also think these opening lines make the speaker of the poem sound
exhausted, like he is at the end of a race, just trying to force himself
through the last few laps. That mood will be really important later in the
poem

Line 3
All in the valley of Death

Now this isn't half a league on a sunny day in the park. Nope, it turns out
we're traveling in "the valley of Death." Scary, huh?

We don't know exactly what that means at this point, but it's sure meant to
make us feel a little scared and uncertain.

We're pretty sure Tennyson and his readers would also have been thinking
of the famous line in Psalm 23: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of
the shadow of death."

Line 4
Rode the six hundred.

Tennyson is slowly introducing us to the setting and the action of the


poem.

Notice that he isn't being too specific. We already know that someone is
covering a certain distance in a scary place. Now we learn that there are
six hundred people, and that they are riding, probably on horseback. We
mean, would you want to take your bicycle out for a spin in the valley of
Death?

We'll get more details soon, but things are already taking shape.

Line 5
"Forward, the Light Brigade!

Now someone speaks, shouting out a military order to move forward. We


don't know who this fellow is, but he introduces the heroes of this poem,
the fearless men of the Light Brigade. Who are these guys?

Well, they are a group of soldiers a "brigade" is a way of dividing up an


army.

They are "cavalry" soldiers, meaning they are riding on horseback.

Finally, they are called "Light" to separate them from the "Heavy Brigade,"
another kind of cavalry unit at the time. Make sense? We just didn't want
you to think they were actually glowing or anything.

Also, Tennyson's poem is based on real events. In 1854, there was a


Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War.

Line 6
Charge for the guns!" he said.

Imagine you're a soldier in 1854. We think "charge for the guns" would
probably be the last thing you'd want to hear. That sounds dangerous,
right? Especially if you're on a horse. Most folks would probably rather
charge away from the guns.

Who is this guy shouting out such a crazy order? We're not quite sure, and
we think Tennyson left him invisible on purpose, to keep us focused on the
amazing, tough guys in the Light Brigade.

Line 7-8
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

The speaker ends the first section of the poem with a little refrain, a kind of
recap of what we've learned so far (in lines 3-4).

The brigade has been ordered into the valley, and they're riding in, even
though they know that guns and "Death" are waiting for them.

Stanza 2 Summary

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Get out the microscope, because were going through this


poem line-by-line.
Line 9
"Forward, the Light Brigade!"

The order is repeated. The speaker really wants us to focus on those


words, on the command to move forward. The men are being sent to their
doom.

Again, we don't know who's giving the orders here, but this disembodied
voice might make us pause and think about why these brave men are
being sent into "the valley of Death."

Line 10
Was there a man dismayed?

Now we're trying to get a peek into the heads of these soldiers, trying to
imagine how it must feel to charge toward death.

The speaker asks if any of the soldiers were "dismayed." In this case, to be
dismayed means to lose your courage, to be overcome by terror or
sadness. That would be a pretty normal reaction to a situation like this.

Line 11-12
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.

Of course the Light Brigade is too tough and loyal to feel dismayed.

That first word, "not," implies that these men don't feel discouraged at all.
They're ready to do their job, even though the order might be crazy.

This is a really important point in this poem. The soldiers aren't dumb.
They know this charge isn't a good idea, that someone has made a
mistake, has "blundered."

This is as close as the poem gets to criticizing the men who ordered this
attack. The speaker is no revolutionary, but we think you can feel some
anger at the commanders simmering under this poem, especially at this
moment.

Lines 13-15
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.

This is a famous group of lines, and for good reason. Do you see how they
fit together, the way they share the same first word and the same rhyming
sound at the end? Do you see how simple they are, too? There's no
showing off, no fancy words (in fact almost all the words in these lines are
one syllable).

The speaker uses these lines to sum up all of the honest, humble heroism
of these men. They're just doing their job. That job doesn't let permit them
to talk back to their commanders ("make reply") or to figure out the point
of the attack ("reason why"). All they can do is to ride and fight and
possibly die ("do and die").

Line 16-17
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

These last two lines are the same as the last two lines in the first stanza. In
poetry, that's called a refrain (like the chorus in a song). It emphasizes the
main action of the poem, which is these men riding to their death. It also
gives a smooth, dignified rhythm to the poem.

Stanza 3 Summary

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Get out the microscope, because were going through this


poem line-by-line.
Line 18-20
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them

The valley of Death turns out to be just about as lousy as it sounds. The
soldiers are surrounded by enemy cannon, left, right, and front. Bad news
for the Light Brigade.

Notice how Tennyson stretches this simple information out over three lines.
What effect does that have?

Well, for one thing, it echoes the three lines in the section above (13-15),
which also all start with the same word.

It also makes the feeling of being surrounded much more intense. It's
almost as if we are right there, turning our heads right, left, and forward,
and seeing cannon everywhere. Scary, huh?

Line 21
Volleyed and thundered;

A little vocab here: a "volley" from a cannon is just a round of firing.

So these huge walls of cannon all around them are firing, and making a
sound like thunder.

Want to know what cannon fire is like? Check out this YouTube video.

Line 22
Stormed at with shot and shell,

The soldiers in the Light Brigade are being "stormed at," by gunfire, an
image that picks up on the word "thundered" in the line we just read.

The "shot" (bullets) and "shell" (big explosives fired from cannon) are a
violent, noisy, destructive force that reminds the speaker of a storm.

Line 23
Boldly they rode and well,

These guys aren't scared of some gunfire, though. In fact, they ride
"boldly" (bravely) even though this is looking more and more like a suicide
mission.

The point of this poem is to show us how heroic these men were.

Line 24
Into the jaws of Death,

Tennyson has a lot of images for this scary valley, and he brings some
more of them in here. Now the valley of Death becomes the "jaws of
Death."

We'll admit it's not a super-original image, but it works well here. It's
almost as if these guys were riding into the mouth of some kind of
ferocious animal.

Lines 25-26
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.

This is the spot (at the end of the stanza) where the refrain belongs (see
lines 7-8 and 16-17), but Tennyson switches things up a bit here. Instead of
"Into the valley of Death," now the men are riding "Into the mouth of hell."

The "mouth of hell" matches up nicely with the "jaws" in the line before,
and it's just one more way of emphasizing how bad the valley is and how
brave these men are.

Changing the refrain also helps to keep us on our toes a little, and keeps
the poem from seeming stale or repetitive.

Stanza 4 Summary

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Get out the microscope, because were going through this


poem line-by-line.
Line 27
Flashed all their sabres bare,

Keep in mind that these guys weren't carrying machine guns. They were
riding through this storm of bullets, on horses, carryingswords.

Well "sabres," to be exact. That's the kind of curved sword a cavalrymen


would have carried. Here's a picture of a sabre.

Line 28
Flashed as they turned in air

The image of these flashing swords makes us think of Medieval knights


fighting.

At this point, during the Crimean War, fighting with swords was already
becoming obsolete. Can you imagine charging on horseback with a sword
toward an enemy with guns and cannon? Focusing on these old-fashioned
sabres is another way to point out the desperate heroism of the Light
Brigade, and also a way to connect them to English warriors of the past.

Line 29
Sab'ring the gunners there,

It turns out that the Light Brigade has some luck. They reach the guns and
stab the men who are operating them.

It's a vivid image, isn't it? You can just imagine those swords slicing,
chopping, and stabbing. This is serious, brutal warfare.

Lines 30-31
Charging an army, while
All the world wondered.

The doomed bravery of these 600 guys "charging an army" jumps out at us
again.

The speaker imagines that "all the world wondered" at this charge. That
line needs a little unpacking. In this case, to "wonder" means to be amazed
by something. That means that the people who "wondered" were filled with
awe as they watched the battle.

What does the speaker mean by "all the world"? Well, Tennyson wrote this
poem because he read about the battle in the newspaper. The men of the
Light Brigade are world famous.

Now it's not just the people on the battlefield who are amazed by their
bravery, but "all the world."

Line 32-33
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;

The Light Brigade is still kicking butt. They move right through the smoke
that's coming from the "battery" (that's a group of cannon).

They even break through the line. That's a major moment in a battle at this
time. Back in the day, soldiers would line up on a field and shoot or run or
ride at each other. For an attack (a "charge") like this to succeed, the
soldiers need to get through the enemy line in order to do damage. Think
of this like a really brutal game of capture the flag.

Line 34-36
Cossack and Russian
Reeled from the sabre stroke
Shattered and sundered.

This is actually the first time we hear about who, exactly, the Light Brigade
is attacking. In these lines, they are slicing "Cossack and Russian" soldiers
with their swords.

This poem is describing the Crimean War, when Britain and its allies were
fighting the Russian Empire. The Cossacks were famously fierce soldiers
allied with the Russian Empire.

The soldiers of the Light Brigade are so effective that these enemies are
"shattered" and "sundered" (which means broken in two).

Line 37-38
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

This is a key moment in the poem. The main action so far, the charge, has
gone as far as it can. Now the soldiers have to turn back where they came
from.

Not all of them though. Some have died. The simple phrase "Not the six
hundred" is our first hint of the terrible casualties the Light Brigade has
suffered.

The poem has been a little grim, but now it starts to become really
mournful, like it was meant for a funeral.

Stanza 5 Summary

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Get out the microscope, because were going through this


poem line-by-line.
Lines 39-43
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,

Feeling a bit of dj vu? You should be, because these lines are almost an
exact repeat of the beginning of the third stanza (lines 18-22). The only
change is in line 41. The cannon that were in front of them are now behind
them, which means that the Light Brigade has turned around and leaving
the enemy behind them.

The return trip is just as deadly and terrifying, it's just turned around.

Even though he's describing really awful stuff, Tennyson still manages to
give this poem a nice feeling of balance. Repetition is an important tool
that helps him achieve that effect.

Line 44
While horse and hero fell.

As we learn about the retreat from the charge, the poem emphasizes the
loss of life.

Here we get an image of horses and soldiers collapsing under the rain of
gunfire.

Notice also that this is the first time that the speaker comes out and calls
these men heroes, although that's clearly been the message from the
beginning.

Line 45-46
They that had fought so well
Came through the jaws of Death,

Now, a part of the Light Brigade returns back to safety, after having
"fought so well."

At the beginning of the poem we heard about how they were going "Into
the jaws of Death" and now they are coming out again. In a way, it's
almost like watching a movie played backward. They charge forwardthey
charge back. They run into the mouththey run back again.

Of course the big difference is that there are a lot fewer of them now.

Line 47-49
Back from the mouth of hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

This stanza ends with the words "six hundred" just like all the others did.

In this case, though, the tone is much darker, and the emphasis is on how
many men have died. The speaker doesn't say how many make it to
safety, but we're guessing that it's a small number.

That's the final image we get off the battle itself, the remnants of the Light
Brigade moving back across the field.

Stanza 6 Summary

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Get out the microscope, because were going through this


poem line-by-line.
Line 50
When can their glory fade?

Now the poem swings into high gear. We're watching Tennyson turn the
soldiers of the Light Brigade into legends.

This line "When can their glory fade?" bursts in like the sound of a
trumpet.

The job of this poem is to make the courage of these British soldiers
immortal. You know what? So far it seems to have worked. You're reading
this poem, right? Which means the bravery of the Light Brigade has been
remembered for over 150 years. This is an example of poetry having a real
effect on how we remember history.

Line 51-52
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.

It is the Light Brigade's desperate, "wild" charge that the speaker wants us
to remember.

Line 52 is a repeat of line 31, and a reminder that this is a story meant to
amaze the entire world. This poem is spreading the word, telling us all that
we should "wonder" at this incredible display of bravery.

Lines 53-55
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

The poem ends with a couple of commands. The speaker orders us, as if he
was a general, to "Honour the Light Brigade."

This is a really public poem with a single purpose and Tennyson doesn't
have time to be subtle at the end. He tells us, point blank, to respect and
remember these noble war heroes.

The Charge of the Light Brigade Themes

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The Charge of the Light Brigade Themes


Warfare
Warfare is probably the #1 theme here. Ultimately, "The Charge of the Light
Brigade" is a poem about a battle. It spends a lot of time describing the
confusion, the terror, the bloodshe...

Courage
There's no question that the Light Brigade has guts. Every last one of them
(according to Tennyson) charges forward to the enemy line and does his job.
Tennyson makes sure to point out...

Death
The tragedy here is that many of the brave soldiers in the Light Brigade die in
this battle. Tennyson doesn't say how many, and he doesn't go into gory details.
Still, death is everywhe...

Duty
The men in the Light Brigade are just doing their job; they're soldiers and it's
their duty to fight. That's the core of what makes them appealing and heroic, but
it's also the thing that mak...

Respect and Reputation


Tennyson doesn't write "The Charge of the Light Brigade" because it's a good
story, or because he just thinks you'd be kind of interested. He wants to
accomplish something specific. He...

The Charge of the Light Brigade Theme of Warfare

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Warfare is probably the #1 theme here. Ultimately, "The Charge of the Light Brigade" is a
poem about a battle. It spends a lot of time describing the confusion, the terror, the
bloodshed, and, yes, also the heroism and excitement of armed combat. Notice that most of
the images and descriptions in the poem relate to warfare: cannon, bullets, smoke, sabres, etc.

Questions About Warfare


1. Why don't we hear more about the Light Brigade's enemy in this poem?
Why are there no real descriptions of the Russians?
2. How does the speaker talk about actual violence in this poem? Why do
you think he doesn't include more blood and gore?
3. How does Tennyson's description of battle compare to more modern pieces
of art that also depict war? (Hint: We're thinking movies, music, poetry,
you name it.)
4. Do you really feel like you're there, in the heat of the battle? Why or why
not?
5. Do you think this poem glorifies war? Does it criticize it? How can you tell?

Chew on This
Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devils advocate.

Even though the Russians were half of the battle, the speaker couldn't care less about them.
He carefully limits his descriptions of the enemy to keep us completely sympathetic with the
Light Brigade.
The relentless repetition of the details of the battlefield is meant to immerse us in the world of
the poem, to give us a gut-level sense of the intensity of war.

The Charge of the Light Brigade Theme of Courage

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There's no question that the Light Brigade has guts. Every last one of them (according to
Tennyson) charges forward to the enemy line and does his job. Tennyson makes sure to point
out that they know exactly how dangerous and hopeless the job is, but they stand up and do it
anyway. "The Charge of the Light Brigade" is about war, but we think its message is about
the heroism of ordinary, nameless soldiers.

Questions About Courage


1. What's the difference between bravery and stupidity? Is it brave to ride
into certain death?
2. Is it braver to die obeying a foolish order or to refuse to obey it?
3. Can you imagine yourself showing the kind of courage these men did?
4. Can you think of a recent example of bravery that is especially moving to
you? How does it compare to the bravery of the Light Brigade?

Chew on This
Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devils advocate.

The fact that the soldiers have to die without questioning or even thinking about the order is
both touching and tragic. The poem's subtle phrasing helps us to see how they are both heroic
and, in a way, enslaved to the will of their commanders.
The heroism of the Light Brigade is the central fact of the poem, and Tennyson pushes aside
all other questions and issues in his effort to paint a picture of their bravery.

The Charge of the Light Brigade Theme of Death

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The tragedy here is that many of the brave soldiers in the Light Brigade die in this battle.
Tennyson doesn't say how many, and he doesn't go into gory details. Still, death is
everywhere in this poem. It's a constant presence, almost like a character. The valley where
the charge takes place belongs to "Death"; we hear all about his jaws, and so forth. Death is
almost a physical presence in "The Charge of the Light Brigade," something you could see
and touch, like the Grim Reaper.

Questions About Death


1. Does this poem make death seem awful and sad, or kind of glorious?
2. Why do you think there are so many mentions of the "jaws," "mouth," and
the "valley" of death?
3. Does this poem provide a realistic portrayal of death and war?
4. Is it possible that this poem, which is all about mortality, also helped to
make these men immortal by preserving their memory in literature?

Chew on This
Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devils advocate.

This poem shelters its readers from the actual violence of war by dealing with death almost
entirely as a symbol or an idea, rather than a bloody fact.

By helping to preserve the memory of these men, "The Charge of the Light Brigade" gives
their deaths real and lasting meaning.

The Charge of the Light Brigade Theme of Duty

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The men in the Light Brigade are just doing their job; they're soldiers and it's their duty to
fight. That's the core of what makes them appealing and heroic, but it's also the thing that
makes their deaths tragic. The Brigade doesn't need to go on a suicide mission and charge
their enemies (some commander seems to have given a bad order), and the Brigade knows
that, but they do it anyway. That's the code of a soldier, and it's definitely what Tennyson is
celebrating here the last word in loyalty, in living up to your promises.

Questions About Duty


1. Why don't we hear more about the way the individual soldiers are feeling,
or who they are?
2. Do you think there's a limit to duty? Is there a point past which you should
refuse to do your job?
3. Have you ever been in a situation where it was your duty to do something
even though you thought it was the wrong thing to do?
4. Why doesn't Tennyson give the names of the commanders? Why don't the
guys giving the orders show up in the poem as characters?

Chew on This
Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devils advocate.

By leaving out the names of the individual soldiers, Tennyson focuses our attention on what
they accomplished as a group, and on their unity and strength.
The commanders are almost completely erased from this poem. This makes them seem
irrelevant and foolish, and allows us to give all our attention to the brave men of the Light
Brigade.

The Charge of the Light Brigade Theme of Respect and


Reputation

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Tennyson doesn't write "The Charge of the Light Brigade" because it's a good story, or
because he just thinks you'd be kind of interested. He wants to accomplish something
specific. He wants the memory of the anonymous men of the Light Brigade to live forever.

You know what? It worked. We guarantee that you would never have heard about the Light
Brigade in the Crimean War if it weren't for this poem, and now you're part of the tradition of
remembering these men.

Questions About Respect and Reputation


1. By honoring soldiers who die like this, do we let their leaders off the hook
for the "blunders" they might have made?
2. Does Tennyson push too hard in that last section? Do you think you would
have gotten the point without the final message telling you how to feel?
3. Does the poem "work" for you? Do you feel respect for the Light Brigade?

Chew on This
Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devils advocate.

Tennyson's poem carefully balances his respect for the Light Brigade with an honest
acknowledgement of the horror and the folly of war.
With the exception of one mention of how the officers "blundered," Tennyson has nothing to
say about why these men died, and for what. All he leaves us with is a glorification of the
Light Brigade and of war in general.