Friday, 22 December 2006

Tackling Tennyson - Sort Of

Encouraged by some regulars of Readings@Seksan's, I wrote about my impressions about this poem by Tennyson for a local poets' community blog. I didn't feel confident at first, but when told to "write my impressions about a poem of your choosing", it became easier.

Charge of the Light Brigade
first published in Puisi-poesy, 22 December 2006

A slip of the keyboard gave away my fondness for narrative poems, which included Robert Browning's Pied Piper of Hamelin, and Tennyson's Charge of The Light Brigade.

Charge was a bit more memorable because it commemorates an event that took place in one of the many battles fought during the Crimean War. From the moment I learned to read, I found fact more fascinating than fiction. This was evident in the number of encyclopaedias at home, one of which mentioned the infamous charge ("...the 600-odd riders charged towards the wrong guns!").

I first Tennyson's "account" of the charge during secondary school; the poem was part of a comprehension exercise. I vaguely remember flipping through all my English books looking for poetry and excerpts from books, more out of boredom than anything else; it was the only subject I excelled in without having to study. But I digress.

So, what was the Charge?

In the 19th century, an alliance of British, French and Turkish soldiers faced off the Russians in the Crimean War. The battle which saw Tennyson's Charge was to prevent the port of Balaclava, the British supply base, from falling into Russian hands. At one point during the battle, Russian soldiers managed to overrun a position manned by some Turks and made off with a small cache of British cannons. The Light Brigade, a detachment of lightly armed cavalry, was sent to retrieve the hardware.

However, the army commander who gave the order forgot to take the terrain into account. While he could follow the thieving Russians from his vantage point high above the battlefield, that path was not visible to the Light Brigade. They ended up charging into a narrow valley bristling with a live battery of guns manned by the Russian Don Cossacks. The army commander could only watch as the cavalry rode towards their doom.

Fortunately for the Light Brigade, all wasn't lost. The Don Cossacks, caught off-guard by the cavalry's reckless manoeuvre, didn't score as many kills as they should have. Unable to retrieve the stolen guns, the Light Brigade had to make do with the Don Cossacks.

While the Charge completely freaked out the Russians, it was less well-received at home. The usual finger-pointing and drama took place over who was to blame. It's all depressing when you realise all this hasn't changed much after two centuries. Nobody chose to fault the soldiers, who were eulogised by press and poet alike.

Warfare has since evolved, but the factors that made the Charge possible still haunts today's armies. When it eventually ends, who will pay homage to the US' Noble Three Thousand (and Counting)?


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