As pointed out by Natalie M. Houston, during the Victorian period, there was a rapid growth in literacy. Due to the “economic and technological changes that made publication of inexpensive daily newspapers possible” (Houston 233), newspapers began to integrate poetry into their publications for the reader’s enjoyment, and “as part of a visual and mental break” (236). However, at times newspaper poems would also engage with current political events (236). In this way, politically engaged newspaper poetry, such as Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” functioned as interpretive news and as an aesthetic interpretation of events, in conversation with prose journalism.
“The Charge of the Light Brigade” interprets an event during the Crimean war, responding to an article published in the Times on 13 November 1854 that reported the tragic deaths of nearly 300 soldiers who charged the wrong way during the battle at Balaklava. The next day, on 14 November, following the report of the catastrophic event, the Times asked, “what is the meaning of a spectacle so strange, so terrific, so disastrous, and yet so grand?” It is to this question that Tennyson responds with his poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade”.
Tennyson published his poetic response in the Examiner, on 9 December 1854. Both the Examiner and the Times were newspapers aimed at middle-class audiences, “and were read by people affected by the war, but experiencing it for the first time, through news reports” (Tate 165). These newspapers were widely circulated and relatively inexpensive. The Times sold at 5d in 1855 and the Examiner at 1d, making it accessible to a large audience (Waterloo Directory of Periodicals). The Times, although more expensive, had an established wide readership with the circulation figures of 1854 being 55,000 (WDP). Thus, Tennyson’s poem, and the news he responded to, was widely known, and accessible to a large audience.
Publishing the war poem in a newspaper is crucial to the way we contextualize it, since newspapers played a highly influential role in shaping the public perception of the war. The Crimean war was the first modern war that offered fast and accessible information through the news, and “took place partly on the level of representation” (Tate 162) for those who were not directly involved in combat. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” implies an awareness of the power the newspapers hold in shaping the public perception of this war, as the speaker reflects on the events of “charging an army while / All the world wondered” (Tennyson 30-31) with the “world” of England holding the 13 November 1854 Times in their hands.
Tennyson was aware of middle class hostility towards the Crimean war as well as questions concerning the competence of the military officials. Yet, Tennyson’s poem attempts to commemorate the death of nearly 300 soldiers in this military misstep –about 45% of the men— rather than dwell on the military officials who “blundered” (Tennyson l 12). Tate remarks the significance of class in “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, as both Tennyson’s poem and the newspapers were “shaped by middle class hostility towards the aristocracy. Though neither takes a simple view of the matter.” (171) One understands the ambivalence towards the event felt throughout Tennyson’s poem referencing the military “blunder” (12), but still urging the readers, much like the men who fought bravely and died, to “not reason why” (14) this occurred, but to respect the dead.
Despite (or possibly because of) the turmoil surrounding this event, Tennyson’s poem rapidly became popular. An army chaplain in 1855 requested prints of the poem to distribute amongst the troops in the Crimea. “It is the greatest favorite of the soldiers, half are singing it and all want to have it in black and white,” he wrote in a letter to Tennyson (Letters of Tennyson ii 117). Tennyson had 2,000 quarto pamphlets of his poem printed for distribution to the soldiers. The poem also appeared in volume format with Maud, and other Poems that same month, a volume which soon became a success and continued to stay in print.
Perhaps the poem was so successful because of the major dichotomies it presented. On the one hand, Tennyson wrote his poem not based on experience, but on articles in a newspaper. This second-hand experience somehow resonated strongly with the soldiers who were in the heat of warfare, as well as the average man or woman reading the poem in the comfort of their respective homes. Furthermore, functioning as a newspaper poem, which often sought to generate pleasure in the reader, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” inspires sorrow and sympathy over this tragic event by commemorating it. Yet, the poem concludes by urging readers not to reflect further, like the soldiers, but to simply pay homage to the victims of this military error “Honor the charge they made/ Honor the Light Brigade,/ Noble six hundred” (Tennyson 53-55), providing a particular framework for newspaper poetry to function as a kind of interpretive news.
“The Attack on Balaklava”. Times. 13 November 1854, p7. 19th Century British Newspapers. Web. 1 Nov. 2013
“The Examiner.” Waterloo Directory of Periodicals. Web. 1 Nov. 2013.
Houston, Natalie M. “Newspaper Poems: Material Texts in the Public Sphere.” Victorian Studies 50.2 (2008): 233-242. Project MUSE. Web. 13 Nov. 2013.
Ledbetter, Kathryn. Tennyson and Victorian Periodicals: Commodities in Context. Aldershot, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007. Print.
“Small consolation it is”. The Times. 14 November 1854, p6. 19th Century British Newspapers. Web. 1 Nov. 2013
Tate, Trudi, Helen Small, and Gillian Beer. Literature, Science, Psychoanalysis, 1830-1970 : Essays in Honour of Gillian Beer. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Print.
Tennyson, Alfred Lord. “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” The Examiner. 18 November 19th Century Britisth Newspapers. Web. 1 Nov. 2013
Tennyson, Alfred Lord, Baron, Cecil Y. Lang, and Edgar Finley Shannon. The Letters of Alfred Lord Tennyson. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1981. Print.
“The Times.” Waterloo Directory of Periodicals Victorianperiodicals.com. Web. 1 Nov. 2013.