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Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1854

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Summary and Study Guide


“The Charge of the Light Brigade” was written by Englishman Alfred, Lord Tennyson when he was poet laureate of the United Kingdom under Queen Victoria. Tennyson wrote the poem after reading newspaper accounts of the Battle of Balaclava, which occurred during the Crimean War. On October 25, 1854, a miscommunication sent a group of British soldiers normally dispersed for duties of light reconnaissance and patrol into heavy artillery fire. This event is considered one of the biggest military mistakes ever made. Of the approximate 670 British soldiers in the brigade, 271 were killed, wounded, or captured. The poem, written to honor them, was first published on December 9, 1854, in London in The Examiner.

According to scholars Edgar Shannon and Christopher Ricks (See: Further Reading & Resources), Tennyson altered the poem at least 20 times, once even taking out one of its most famous lines—“someone had blundered” (Line 12)—when it was included in Maud and Other Poems (1855). Tennyson immediately regretted this change and reinstated the line for the second printing (1856). Tennyson sent a thousand copies of a single-sheet version of the poem to be distributed among soldiers in the Crimea after hearing how much they appreciated the poem. This is the version considered authoritative. For years, Tennyson’s poem was memorized and recited by schoolchildren, and it still remains widely anthologized today.

Poet Biography

Alfred Tennyson was born on August 6, 1809, in Somersby, Lincolnshire, England to George Clayton Tennyson, an Anglican rector, and his wife Elizabeth Fytche. Despite being verbally abusive, as well as addicted to drink and drugs, George was still determined to see his that his children had a wide education in literature and philosophy. Alfred, the fourth oldest of 12, was taken with poetry, especially the Romantic poets.

In 1827, Tennyson and two of his brothers published a book of poems called Poems by Two Brothers, a text that primarily featured Alfred’s work. That same year, he enrolled at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he met one of his most important friends, Arthur Henry Hallam. Hallam and Tennyson were set to publish their works together in Poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1830), but Hallam was forced to pull his work from the volume by his father. Tennyson’s poems, however, met with some favorable reviews, and he and Hallam continued their deep rapport.

In 1831, Tennyson’s father died. Alfred was forced to leave Cambridge without his degree. The family faced grief and the misfortune of financial difficulties. Meanwhile, Hallam fell in love with Emily, Tennyson’s younger sister, but the lovers hid their relationship, fearing disapproval. By 1832, however, their engagement was tentatively accepted. Joy was short-lived. In 1833, Hallam suffered apoplexy while touring Vienna and died. Deeply grieving this loss, Tennyson was also still smarting from the skewering of his third volume of poems (1832) by critics. In order to cope, he began In Memoriam A. H. H., the poem that would establish his position as a premiere Victorian poet 17 years later.

In 1836, Tennyson became enamored with Emily Sellwood, his brother Charles’s sister-in-law. However, for unclear reasons, Tennyson ceased all correspondence with Emily in 1840. Some critics have speculated that Emily’s father interfered, while others note Tennyson was worried about his potential for mental health issues, including alcoholism and epilepsy, all of which ran in his family. In the 1840s, Tennyson embarked on an eight-year long course of hydrotherapy to cope with his ills. In 1842, Tennyson produced the two-volume work Poems, which was well received, and he was granted a pension by the prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, which allayed his financial concerns. In 1847, he published The Princess, his first long narrative, which was successful. Upon finding out he wasn’t epileptic, he reunited with Emily Sellwood, and the two married in 1850. A short while later, in 1853, they settled in Farringford in the Isle of Wright and had two sons, Hallam and Lionel.

1850 was a year of tremendous change for Tennyson. Besides his marriage, Tennyson also achieved success in his career. In Memoriam, which had grown to 133 poems, was published and met with extensive success, critically and with the public. That same year, Tennyson won the patronage of Queen Victoria, who appointed Tennyson poet laureate. Tennyson wrote several poems as the national poet, lauding statesmen and soldiers, including “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” In 1859, he concluded Idylls of the King, which included 12 connected poems about Arthurian legend. It, too, proved immensely popular.

In the 1870s, Tennyson tried his hand at poetic drama, writing six plays, but these were not nearly as successfully received as his poetry, and critics tend not to consider them memorable. As he aged, he continued to write popular lyrics, which were collected into Tiresias and Other Poems (1885) and The Death of Oenone, Akbar’s Dream, and Other Poems (1892). In 1883, he received a peerage, a high British honor. His success in later years was marred by the passing of friends and the death of his youngest son, Lionel, who died from illness as he returned from India in 1886. Tennyson himself died on October 6, 1892, surrounded by his remaining family. He was buried in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey.

Poem Text


Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

   Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!

Charge for the guns!” he said.

Into the valley of Death

   Rode the six hundred.


“Forward, the Light Brigade!”

Was there a man dismayed?

Not though the soldier knew

   Someone had blundered.

   Theirs not to make reply,

   Theirs not to reason why,

   Theirs but to do and die.

   Into the valley of Death

   Rode the six hundred.


Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon in front of them

   Volleyed and thundered;

Stormed at with shot and shell,

Boldly they rode and well,

Into the jaws of Death,

Into the mouth of hell

   Rode the six hundred.


Flashed all their sabres bare,

Flashed as they turned in air

Sabring the gunners there,

Charging an army, while

   All the world wondered.

Plunged in the battery-smoke

Right through the line they broke;

Cossack and Russian

Reeled from the sabre stroke

   Shattered and sundered.

Then they rode back, but not

   Not the six hundred.


Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon behind them

   Volleyed and thundered;

Stormed at with shot and shell,

While horse and hero fell.

They that had fought so well

Came through the jaws of Death,

Back from the mouth of hell,

All that was left of them,

   Left of six hundred.


When can their glory fade?

O the wild charge they made!

   All the world wondered.

Honour the charge they made!

Honour the Light Brigade,

   Noble six hundred!

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” 1854. Poetry Foundation.


The poem recounts the historic event of the Battle at Balaclava in the Crimean War (1853-1856). It begins as the Light Brigade charges into the valley of the Ukrainian peninsula. The number of the brigade is listed as 600. As cavalry members, the men ride on horses and are armed with “sabres” (Line 27). They are told by their commander to go “forward” (Line 5) and “charge for the [enemy’s] guns” (Line 6), even though they are the “light” brigade and this is an unusual order for heavy duty. Even though “someone had blundered” (Line 15) and miscommunicated the command, specifically the location of the guns, the men don’t know it. As trained soldiers, they do not question the instructions of the commander, continuing into battle despite facing certain death. Surrounded by cannon launchers and gunners who fire at them, they perform bravely and with skill. Despite the hellish surrounding, the men ”flas[h] all their sabres bare” (Line 27) and strike to break through the “Russian” (Line 34) defenses. While this is effective, there are heavy casualties, and the men who survive are “not the six hundred” (Line 38). As they retreat, more casualties occur as men and horses die. In the last stanza, the speaker urges the British public to honor these soldiers, both the fallen and the survivors, as “noble” (Line 55).