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Charge of the Light Brigade vs Bayonet Charge

Charge of the Light Brigade by Tennyson is written from an outsider’s perspective reflecting on the whole experience of charging into battle on horseback, while Bayonet Charge is contrastingly narrated right in the middle of the action by an omniscient presence, which creates a feeling that you are there with the soldier. Neither, Tennyson nor Hughes ever experienced the brutality of the fighting, but were both inspired to write their poems by others’ experience of war. Tennyson after reading about The Battle of Balaclava in the newspaper, and Hughes after having his young life overshadowed by the impact of war on where he lived and his own family. While both poets use “Charge” in the title, these “charges” are presented differently as Tennyson shows “six hundred” men being corralled into battle with nowhere to go in “COTLB” and a first person perspective of a frightened soldier, who also has nowhere to go in “Bayonet Charge”.  

Both poems have a different rhythm that creates opposing feelings. IN ‘COTLB’ the structure seems futile, while in Bayonet Charge the structure seems frantic highlighting the feelings of the individual, as opposed to the collective voice in ‘COTLB’. From the start of ‘COTLB’, a horse beat rhythm is created with the use of repetition and caesura in “Half a league,…onward,” which mimics the men riding their horses unquestioningly into battle. The momentum is driven forward and the archaic language relating to distance also makes it feel like the action happened a long time ago, but also that they were on a momentous journey as well, a journey that many men would not return from. The battle of Balaclava happened during the Boer War and men were “not to reason why” but rather “to do or die” implying that there was no choice in the action that they undertook, once they were soldiers, their loyalty, obedience and willingness to die for their country was an assumption not to be questioned; they would have taken their vows as a soldier as a solemn promise. Although Tennyson does not question this, the tone in the poem, makes it seem ironic that these brave men were being sent into a trap “Some one had blunder’d” which suggests that an accident was made by the commanding officers and the men were heading into a trap that would ultimately lead to their deaths. However, in Bayonet Charge, the first person perspective “Suddenly he awoke and was running” with the active verbs portraying panic, creating a disorder, that is not evident in ‘COTLB’. As well as this, the suddenness of the waking with the adverb suggests that this is blind panic and the soldier has been frightened awake in some way, or that he is has been so unaware of where he is that his ‘fight or flight’ response has been triggered right at the start of the poem. It is as if suddenly he realises where he is and what he is doing. This blind panic is reinforced by the “sweat heavy” and the use of impersonal pronouns “he” which create a sense that this soldier could be any soldier, or could possibly not even know who he is at this point. “Sweat” reinforces the panic, suffering and intense feelings of being out of control that the soldier seems to feel. While, in ‘COTLB’ a sense of control and instruction is given “Forward, the Light Brigade!” with the exclamatory tone “he said:” and the commands being given to the men, showing a sense of solidarity and a common purpose, unlike Bayonet Charge, where the man is “Stumbling” which implies a lack of sure footing or a reluctance or a sense that the ground has been churned up terribly by the men that have come before him on this futile journey towards “a green hedge”. This could be the man looking for refuge from the horrors of close combat, using nature as a cover for what is really going to happen, or it could suggest that he wants to desert from his position, but perhaps he is in fact heading towards the enemy with bayonet in hand, unthinking until his metaphorical awakening and the realisation of what is actually happening. It may also be a reflection of the PTSD that many men suffered during and after WW1 and WW2 meaning that they were unfit to continue fighting, but at the time this wasn’t always recognised. This awakening is dissimilar to ‘COTLB’ as we never hear the voices or thoughts of the men and therefore don’t get an insight into the way they felt as they walked into death, which resonates with the biblical “walked through the valley of the shadow of death.” Implying the men are like sheep in ‘COTLB’    

The trauma and futility of combat is also evident in both poems. Tennyson uses vivid metaphors to get to the heart of the horror of being propelled forward as one, into an enemy trap. “Into the valley of Death” becomes “into the jaws of Death” and “Came thro’ the jaws of Death” with the nouns increasing the imagery of pain and suffering. A “valley” can appear pleasant, meandering and fairly innocent, but coupled with “of Death” it takes on a sinister tone as Tennyson makes it clear that the ultimate life sacrifice will be made there, while “jaws” suggests an entrapment which foreshadows the fate of the “brave six hundred”. Likewise, a sense of entrapment and an inability to escape is shown in ‘Bayonet Charge’ with the metaphor “in what cold clockwork of the stars and nations//Was he the hand pointing that second?” showing that the soldier feels stuck in that time and can’t get out, there is nothing that he can do, it is his fate to be running towards the enemy, but makes the reader and the soldier himself question whether his time is up. “Running” is also repeated three times in the poem and this active verb, coupled with “stumbled”, “plunged”, “crawled” creates a semantic field of movement, implying that every living thing cannot wait to get out of there, including the soldier. While ‘COTLB’ duty is evident in the dignified collective charge that they make, the same sense of duty and loyalty is shown in ‘Bayonet Charge’ to have prompted the soldier to sign up, but the reality means “King, honour, human dignity etcetera…” are forgotten in the fear of the moment and the only thing that the soldier can do is blindly charge towards the enemy with “bayonet” outstretched. The bayonet as a weapon seems ironic in this moment as the hedge “dazzled with rifle fire” implying that the enemy are shooting ferociously at the oncoming men; with knives on the end of their guns but apparently no bullets they are like sitting ducks. It seems evident that the soldier is depicted as walking through no-man’s land, which was notoriously bleak, hazardous and caused the violent death of so many men. Again, this futility is evident in “COTLB” when they are trapped by “Cannon to right of them”, “left” and “behind” showing that they also have nowhere to go, they must surge forward though it is to certain death. The synaesthesia used with “Volley’d and thunder’d” creates allusions to storms and the mighty power of the Greek Gods, as if there is nothing that can now save these doomed soldiers, their fate is unfortunately sealed. However, the inevitability of their deaths is once again reinforced by the end rhyme used “shell,”, “fell,”, “well” and “Hell,” which adds a poignant climax to the fact that some made it through “All that was left of them,” showing that some men survived but that the majority of the men had died. Death in “Bayonet Charge” is reserved not only for the soldiers, like ‘COTLB’ but instead for the “yellow hare that rolled like a flame” with the simile implying that there is no hiding place on this battlefield, not even for the smallest of creatures. Death doesn’t appear to come for just the soldiers but instead it seems to chase the soldier, who is clearly petrified by the actions that he is involved in. 

Structurally, both ‘COTLB’ and Bayonet Charge are very different. ‘COTLB’ is regimented and reinforces the sound and rhythm of the horse’s hooves and ends with repetition of “Honour the charge they made! Honour the Light Brigade!” which may seem ironic as they were send blindly and perilously to their deaths. However, ‘Bayonet Charge’ has a fractured structure with the stanza lines unevenly distributed in the poem, creating the sense of the stumbling run that the soldier is undertaking and ends with “His terror’s touchy dynamite.” Implying that he might explode as a result of the terror that he feels. The persona’s perspectives are again collective in ‘COTLB’ and singular in ‘Bayonet Charge’ but both show the ultimate futility of war and combat and the impact that it can have on the lives of the men. 

Tennyson and Hughes use of different perspectives links to the different authorial viewpoints that they held, although both were not soldiers and both were removed from the action. Tennyson was reflecting on a historic event, while Hughes was reflecting on the personal conflict and suffering growing up with war shrouding the area he lived in. In this respect the ‘COTLB’ rightfully appears to be more Jingoistic, while ‘Bayonet Charge’ is less so and more realistic in the way the horror and terror of war is brought home to us. Both poets depict war as grossly unfair and a place of terrible suffering and perhaps this is what both poets wanted to reinforce, that war does bring suffering. 


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