Views of War in Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade and Whitman’s Drum-Taps
Even though Walt Whitman and Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote with different styles and ideals, the common theme of war gave them the similar purpose of exposing the destructive nature of battle while remaining inspiring and even optimistic. Tennyson’s "The Charge of the Light Brigade" reveals a fatal "blunder" that cost the lives of many English soldiers, while asserting that the unquestioning loyalty of the British troops causes tremendous pride. Whitman’s Drum-Taps series of poems, especially "Beat! Beat! Drums!," documents the tragedies that occurred during the Civil War, yet maintains a feeling of hope that the war will help to cleanse the nation and revitalize it. Despite the outward similarities between "Light Brigade" and Drum-Taps, subtle differences exist between the respective authors’ attitudes towards war and the tones that carry over into the poems. The extreme pride Tennyson felt for England as Britain’s poet laureate swayed his writing, and critics have since attacked the excessive jingoism that seeps into "Light Brigade" (Marshall 135), since he was unable to capture the immense suffering of battle that could only be seen on the front lines, where he never set foot. Conversely, Whitman was able to grasp the darkest of emotions that war generated in his poems because of the prolonged experience he had caring for the wounded and mourning the dead (Golden 106). Tennyson’s "The Charge of the Light Brigade" and Whitman’s "Beat! Beat! Drums!" appear to be nationalistic poems glorifying war, but while Tennyson paints a heroic picture of valiant soldiers fighting a just war, Whitman employs a mixture of sarcasm and grim reality to portray war as senseless and unnecessary.
The circumstances that led to Tennyson’s writing "The Charge of the Light Brigade" give insight into his motivations and the attitude he brings to the poem. Tennyson’s poem celebrates the cavalry charge made by the Light Brigade of the British army on October 25, 1854, near Balaclava, Russia. The English commander, Lord Raglan, gave an order to Lord Cardigan that he was to lead the Light Brigade into an attack on Russian troops in an attempt to regain lost weaponry. Even though the order was disputed, Raglan’s wishes were carried out, and the grossly undermanned Brigade of six hundred men was slaughtered, leaving 450 dead. Upon reading an account of the incident in a local newspaper, Tennyson wrote a ballad that revealed how impressed he was with the soldiers’ unquestioned loyalty (Marshall 134). Viewing in retrospect the impact of his poem and of the event itself, Tennyson called the disastrous blunder that led to the catastrophe "one for which England should be grateful, having learnt thereby that her soldiers are the bravest and most obedient under the sun" (Luce 265). Tennyson’s fierce nationalism clouds his ability to accurately depict the cruelty of war.
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