Compare the poems “The Charge of The Light Brigade”, and its parody “The Last of The Light Brigade” exploring the topic of war and its glorification. Explore also the conflicting attitudes to war, propaganda and falsehood that can be drawn from “All That is Gold Does Not Glitter” and link this to Kipling’s attack on laureate Tennyson’s poem for its ‘Dunkirk-like’ feel.
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Man it seems, has always wanted to glorify war; the public would rather hear tales of wonderful sacrifices and noble acts than of the human cost. As well as exploring the continuing desensitization of man to war, this essay seeks to explore and untangle the conflicting attitudes to war and war propaganda that are set out in: “The Charge of The Light Brigade” by A.L. Tennyson, “The Last of The Light Brigade” by Rudyard Kipling and finally “All That is Gold Does Not Glitter” by J.R.R. Tolkien. Each provides its own angle on the topic and uses a variety of mechanisms (whether subtle or distinct) to express it.
Rudyard Kipling is believed to have been offered the post of Poet Laureate during the latter years of his life, but if so he turned it down. Kipling had ended his education without the qualifications to go to Oxford. Instead he became editor of ‘The Military & Civil Gazette’. He wrote there that he had always regretted “war’s scar on society” despite justifying it enthusiastically in various war pamphlets that he wrote for World War One.
Tennyson was actually awarded the title of Poet Laureate in 1850 [i] . His predecessor, William Wordsworth – a man who had accepted the position on the basis that his subject matter wouldn’t be restricted – had died earlier that year in April. However as civil war approached, Tennyson saw the return of traditional poetic themes. His works in this period began to feature the topic of war more and more, so – unsurprisingly with such powerful and uncompromising messages attached to them – they acted as propaganda.
Influenced by the monarch, Tennyson sought to propagate ideas about war and other foreign affairs whilst also writing commemoratively about birthdays, holidays and local or national events. Upon reading “The Charge of The Light Brigade” one might wonder at how factual the account is. Glimmerings of bias stem from the lack of attention to whoever “had blunder’d” whilst the poet unceasingly speaks of the “noble six hundred” and the supposedly honorable “change they made”. The poem can therefore be interpreted in two ways: firstly a cover-up for the mistakes of “someone” that resulted in a massacre nearly wiping out the entire brigade; or instead, as I believe one where Tennyson is seeking for answers to the loose-ended London Times article of the same title [ii] . I feel Kipling may have mis-interpreted the poem for its first meaning and missed the latter, where Tennyson seeks the same answers and justice as Kipling. In this case the phrase “someone had blundered” appears in the article as “some hideous blunder” – this indicates that the poet aimed to blame someone (possibly the lieutenant general Lord Cardigan) for the disaster.
In this instance ambiguity helped Tennyson to fulfill his own aims for the poem (to inform the public and by doing so to provoke thought or even get a public response of some description) without showing his attitudes to war in a clear-cut way. Attitudes of the sort would most certainly have been considered obstinate and erroneous at the time, especially for a man appointed to express the political views of the monarch himself. However ambiguity has other roles to play, this is why it features so much in the very best of poetry. Upon first reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s poem ‘All That is Gold Does Not Glitter’ I wondered to what extent the title and opening line are simply rephrasals of the well-known saying: “Not all that glitters is gold”. As a matter of fact the first drafts for the poem did use this corrupted version of a line from the Shakespearean play, ‘The Merchant of Venice’.
Personification is used cleverly in Kipling’s The Last of the Light Brigade, this time to describe the aging brigadiers whose heads were “scarred and lined”; victims of the “Russian sabres”. Kipling describes the swords as “keen”, this is quite interesting because the description is also an example of “double-entendre”. Keen could simply be interpreted to mean sharp, or as suggested by the successive line that the swords themselves were keen to battle. Clearly one must recognize that the literal interpretation of the line (in which the inanimate sword is given human emotion) is nonsensical. Instead, analyze the keenness of the swords metonymically – the sword, so commonly associated with its wielder is simply being used to represent the whole.
All three poems use alliteration in a similar way to enhance their rhythm; one of the clearest examples being from ‘All That is Gold Does Not Glitter’: “Deep roots are not reached by the frost”. Another from ‘The Charge of The Light Brigade’ allows the sounds of the battle to be heard as well as just imagined: “Reel’d from the sabre-stroke, Shatter’d and sunder’d”. Again “Storm’d at with shot and shell” uses sibilance alongside the harsher ‘t’ and ‘d’ sounds allowing for the aforementioned onomatopoeic effect. Both examples give the lines very fragmented tones.
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This fragmentedness would match Tennyson’s rhyme scheme which despite largely using iambic pentameter varies to trocheeic and dactylic. Furthermore Tennyson breaks the regular ten-foot line into alternating lines of four and six feet. This gives the line a lumbering rhythym which many associate with the galloping of horses or a war drum. I, however, would diverge from this view; the irregularities instead conjure images of limping soldiers – an army in full retreat – to my mind. Furthermore these irregularities become more and more common after the army begins to retreat in the fifth stanza. I feel that if Tennyson had intended otherwise he would not have broken the traditional ‘rules’ of poetry that if broken can become intolerable.
Although the device is not used in the other two poems Rudyard Kipling cleverly uses the “kiddies at school” as a foil to his own outlook. This is interesting because it challenges the childish ignorance of not just the kids that recite the verse but of the men that read the news article, blinded so willingly to the true horrors of war. In this way Kipling reinforces his own argument by shocking people into viewing their ignorance properly.
Onomatopoeia is one literary technique used in all three of the poems. The best examples come from Tennyson’s work, he would have chosen harsh words like “Cannon”, “Storm’d” and “Shot” to portray an image of chaos in the minds of the audience. Tolkien too uses the technique with words like “glitter” and “spring” which suggest renewal whereas Kipling uses the device more acutely with trochaic words like “limping” to reflect the asymmetric gait of a wounded soldier.
Parallelism is yet another cunning technique used by Rudyard Kipling to mock Tennyson. The phrase “into the mouth of hell” for example is reflected in the sixth verse of Kipling’s poem when the author surrogate – “the old-troop sergeant” – says: it’s all come true what you wrote, sir, regardin’ the mouth of hell; For we’re all of us nigh to the workhouse, an’ we thought we’d call an’ tell”.
Indeed parallels run on every level throughout all three of the texts. They all revolve around the theme of war, and, in doing so they cover the topic of change. Many of the parallels seem rather uncanny: Tolkien writes that “The crownless again shall be king”. This seems to emulate how the soldiers in ‘The Last of The Light Brigade’ began the poem “dying of famine” with “neither food nor money” but finish with “twenty pounds and four”. Even though it was Kipling who wrote the “‘to-be continued’ or ‘see-next page’o’ the fight” the forecasted generosity of the English allows the poem to take on a prophetic tone. It acts proactively, seeking future amendments to past wrongdoings, and ultimately irons out the ‘Dunkirk-feel’ from Tennyson’s own misconstrued plea for justice.
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