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Linda K. Hughes on Tennyson

Linda K. Hughes on The Year’s Work on Tennyson, 2003

Victorian Poetry, 42.3 (2004) 409-18



Amidst inescapable news coverage of a divisive war in Iraq, it is perhaps not surprising that Tennyson's war poetry is receiving renewed attention. Trudi Tate's ‘On Not Knowing Why: Memorializing the Light Brigade’, Literature, Science, Psychoanalysis, 1830-1970: Essays in Honour of Gillian Beer, ed. Helen Small and Trudi Tate (Oxford Univ. Press, pp. 160-180), is among the year's best work, both for its historical scholarship and the deep thoughtfulness Tate brings to the subjects of war’s meaning within a culture and the complexities of representing it. As Tate demonstrates, newspaper reports and poems about Balaclava, like the military action itself, were involved in larger social debates about class, tradition, and cultural authority. In an increasingly commercial culture, aristocratic predominance within officer ranks looked outdated and wasteful when deployments increasingly relied on the commercial skills of organization and efficiency. Yet aristocratic valor, duty, and glamour were culturally useful models of self-sacrifice and what Tate shrewdly terms the fantasy element of war, whether in the form of vicarious participation (which sustained support at home) or the entertaining spectacle circulated by the periodical press.


Interpreting the charge of the Light Brigade was inseparable from these class tensions, since the charge was at once an example of horrific waste of life to no discernible military purpose and an astonishing example of courage and discipline against overwhelming odds. Internal tensions within print culture paralleled those involving the military. Poetry was in some respects archaic, since the daily press could relay information more efficiently and poetry had no directly utilitarian purpose. But poetry was a form of cultural action insofar as it inspired readers. If poetry relied on the press for its matter, its detachment from daily business enabled it simultaneously to critique and circulate the fantasy element of war. Tennyson’s treatment of the charge thus, according to Tate, resonates with contemporary class rivalries, a pervasive press, and cultural ambivalence. Tennyson both deplores the waste of life and celebrates ideas of heroic bravery and self-sacrifice. Like the aristocratic brigade that at once resolutely acted yet passively accepted botched orders from above, the poem also actively probes the charges’ meaning only to retreat at the end into a refusal to think (‘not to reason why’) in favor of spectacle (‘All the world wondered [l. 31]) and the imperative of tribute (‘Honour the Light Brigade’ [l. 54]).