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  • Giving Voice to the Crimean War:Tennyson's "Charge" and Maud's Battle-song
  • Stefanie Markovits (bio)

War poetry—whether epic narrative or lyric song—traditionally works to bring voices into unison. This is one of its primary objectives: to ensure that a nation under threat marches in syncopated lock-step. But what happens when the war in question is an unpopular one? During the Crimean War (1854-56), in which Britain and France took up arms together to defend Turkey against an encroaching Russian empire, the public awareness of bureaucratic bungling and general "blunder" (in "The Charge of the Light Brigade" [1854], Tennyson picks up this word from a Times account) was so great as to result in the toppling of the Aberdeen Ministry. The war that was to have revitalized a threateningly mercantilized British manhood after a peace of forty years devolved into what was perceived by many to be farce. In this essay, I will look at Tennyson's two most famous Crimean War poems—"The Charge" and Maud (1855)—in order to ask how the Victorians translated their response to such a conflict into verse.1 In the work of the Poet Laureate, we can see a complex negotiation of the terrain of patriotic martial poetry from the midst of a war that was notoriously marked more by dissonance than by harmony.

Curiously, Tennyson appears to have felt the need to "do" this war "in different voices": while "The Charge of the Light Brigade" deals impersonally but respectfully with a collective action, an epic deed, in six rapid stanzas, Maud wallows spasmodically in an individual's suffering.2 Perhaps these formal distinctions explain why the poems are so rarely discussed together (as opposed to individually or serially), in spite of the fact that "The Charge" was written even as Tennyson was working on Maud.3 An intimate link between them does appear, though, in the crucial place of a martial ballad in the narrative of Maud. When the speaker first encounters Maud, she is "Singing of Death, and of Honour that cannot die"4:

She is singing an air that is known to me,A passionate ballad gallant and gay,A martial song like a trumpet's call! [End Page 481] Singing alone in the morning of life,In the happy morning of life and of May,Singing of men that in battle array,Ready in heart and ready in hand,March with banner and bugle and fifeTo the death, for their native land.


Although this "chivalrous battle-song" (I.383) remains unrecorded, it manages to reverberate throughout the pages of the poem that bears its singer's name.

Many critics have been tempted to read Maud's ballad in contrast with the larger work into which it is (albeit silently) embedded. Thus Herbert Tucker has argued that it is "traditional," belonging to an "aristocratic past" at odds with the dismal present of Maud.5 Similarly, Tricia Lootens claims that "what sings itself, through [Maud], is the combined folk and chivalric tradition from which the future author of the Idylls of the King (1859-85) was to draw his most ambitious attempts to link England's idealized past to its future."6 Yet the aristocratic nostalgia invoked might belong as much to the poet's current works as to his future ones: it may be that nostalgia commonly attributed to Tennyson's "Charge," a poem to which he himself referred repeatedly as a "ballad"7 and which, according to Jerome McGann, also represents an attempt to reinstate the "historically threatened" aristocracy.8 After all, both "honour" and "death" figure prominently there, too. "Honour" takes over the imperative form in the final stanza of the poem from the otherwise controlling "Charge" of the title, seeming almost to be similarly reified—converted from verb into noun—in the process of being written into the meter (ll. 53, 54). And the other end towards which the ballad charges irrevocably is "death"—as in both "valley of" (ll. 3, 16) and "jaws of" (ll. 24, 46).

In what follows, I shall consider what it means to imagine Maud's battle-song as an air known to...