Thursday, October 25, 2012

`Theirs But to Do and Die'

I learned “The Charge of the Light Brigade” not from a book but from Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, who recited Tennyson’s poem, or at least the first two verses and a portion of the third, in the 1936 Our Gang comedy “Two Too Young.” Even in that form the poem was rousing and rhythmically memorable. I can’t remember not knowing the lines Alfalfa recited and a few others later in the poem, in particular “Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die,” which I’ve always thought distilled a military and patriotic ideal. The cavalry charge Tennyson immortalized occurred on this date, Oct. 25, in 1854, at the Battle of Balaklava during the Crimean War (1853-1856). 

In `Theirs But to Do and Die’ (Astra Press, 1995), Patrick Waddington collects, along with Tennyson’s war horse, forty-eight other poems written to commemorate the charge, one of the great blunders in British military history. Casualties included 118 dead, 127 wounded and 60 taken prisoner by the Russians. French Marshal Pierre Bosquet, who witnessed the charge, famously observed: “C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre: c'est de la folie.” Little more than a month later, on Dec. 9, 1854, Tennyson published his poem in the Examiner. Slightly revised, it was collected the following year in Maud, and Other Poems, and published as a four-page quarto broadsheet for the British troops in the Crimea. Waddington cites George Orwell’s inclusion of “The Charge of the Light Brigade” among the “good bad poems” that “reek of sentimentality” yet are “capable of giving true pleasure to people who can clearly see what is wrong with them.” Waddington praises the poem’s “exalted verbal memorability,” saying: 

“Part of its apparent greatness may, in fact, reside in its quasi-scriptural phraseology: those who have it by heart approach it like a religious text.” 

Other poems collected by Waddington include outright parodies of Tennyson’s, and many make reference to it, directly or allusively, seriously or comically. Among the surprises: Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910), the American author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” wrote “Balaklava” (Words for the Hour, 1857). Waddington admits the poem is “frankly rather simplistic and the presentation uneven,” though he praises the second line of the sixth stanza: 

“At serried gallop on they press,
Swerveless as pencilled lines of light,
And where a steed turns back in fright.
That steed is riderless.” 

More typical of Victorian prosody and piety is “The Charge of Death” by the future author of Lorna Doone, Richard D. Blackmore. Even Waddington, who maintains proper scholarly deportment through most of his commentary, says some of Blackmore’s lines are “weak, even unintentionally comic,” as in the second of his twenty-four stanzas (“they” refers to the Russians, and the Turks were British allies): 

“With swift advance they put to rout
(Like leaves before October gale)
The Turks, who held yon steep redoubt,
And drove them down the widening dale;
Thus far they came—but where we stand,
They met the Scotchmen hand to hand.
Whose limbs are bare to battle’s brunt,
But never seen except in front.”


Chuck Kelly said...

I remember the firecrackers exploding in Alfalfa's back pocket. Some kid used a magnifying glass to light them.

bruce floyd said...

I don't know that this anecdote about Tennyson is true, but once, so I seem to recall, Tennyson, who loved to read his poems aloud to an audience, recited from "Maud" (his "little 'Hamlet'") to a young woman. He asked her, after reading the following lines:

Birds in the Hall-garden
When Twilight was falling,
Maud, Maud, Maud, Maud,
They were crying and calling,

whether she knew what kind of birds he is referring to. The poor young woman did not know, sat there stupefied. An exasperated Tennyson explained to her the birds were rooks, the 'aw" sound in the repetition of Maud imitating the cry of the rook.