- The Charge of the Light Brigade
In the first two lines of Alfred Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade," only four words are used. Like the repetition in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Bells" ("Of the bells, bells, bells, / Of the bells, bells, bells, bells, / Bells, bells, bells—" ), the repetition of whole lines in Tennyson's poem raises specific questions about how to read, intone, and sound "The Charge," and more general questions about the purpose and significance of oralizing poetry. So what can a contemporary critic possibly learn from reading this particular poem out loud? Jerome McGann has noted that the reception history of the poem reveals how it "has not merely fallen out of favor ... but ... has come to seem mildly ludicrous, slightly contemptible." McGann focuses on "the historical events," "their ideological significance," and Tennyson's "attitudes towards these matters" as primary reasons for the decline of "The Charge" from critical favour (190-91). The poem's historicity—the fact that it is a period piece—has allowed it to serve as an aesthetically compromised example of verse in contrast to Tennyson's "deeper, more universal" poems (this last phrase from Cleanth Brooks's The Well Wrought Urn, qtd. in McGann 188). In addition to these reasons, the formal, metrical choices and dramatic repetitions that informed Tennyson's approach to this kind of commemorative battle poem, and the thoroughly declamatory treatment of the historical event must also have had much to do with the decline. Its galloping dactyls did "The Charge" in.
The dactylic metre of the poem seems to invite a fast and furious reading and led to the attitude expressed by R.M. Milnes that "The Charge" is "a real gallop in verse, and only good as such" (qtd. in Ricks 244). Another way of stating this point is to say that the poem had been unable to shed its function as a recitation anthology mainstay, the embarrassment of which was declared by Elsie Fogerty as early as the 1920s, in her influential The Speaking of English Verse. Here she argued strongly that "above all we must throw away the horrible false tradition of 'recitation,' which stood self-condemned in that it never succeeded in interpreting anything but the worst, the most vulgar and meaningless of verse" (x). Recitation selections came to indicate poor [End Page 27] taste and vulgar interpretation because they were so often occasional pieces. Furthermore, the selections served as explicit examples for rehearsal in the delivery of assonance, consonance, weighty repetition, strong rhyme, and markéd metre. "The Charge" was a Victorian recitation anthology favourite, appearing in these compilations fewer times only, it seems, than Poe's "The Bells." Notably, the most popular recitation pieces were frequently parodied in a manner that simultaneously capitalized upon and mocked those elements of the poem that made it so popular.
There have been few contemporary critical attempts to prove that "The Charge" demonstrates "a level of artistic sophistication ... exceeding that of an ordinary 'gallop in verse'" (Lovelace 105). McGann's reading in The Beauty of Inflections is one example, and still the most sophisticated insofar as it has a well-articulated theory of criticism—summed up for our purposes in the concept of "critical sympathy"—behind it (McGann 202). J. Timothy Lovelace makes another kind of attempt in The Artistry and Tradition of Tennyson's Battle Poetry by demonstrating how the poem resonates richly with Homeric and Virgilian epic significance (107).
For a more formal (i.e., New Critical) defence of the poem's sophistication at a psychological and emotional level—for the argument that we can still find "The Charge" an autonomous aesthetic object legitimately moving and not just full of clopping metrical movement—Lovelace refers us to a close reading of the poem by Christopher Ricks. Ricks, in 1972, described "The Charge" as "a stirring poem, the more so for anyone who has heard the recording of Tennyson reading it" (244). Ricks says, "Tennyson's voice swoops upon knew with an emphasis at once awed, exasperated, and half-incredulous at the immediately culpable folly of...