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.”