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Publication of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’

Richard Cavendish remembers the events of December 9th, 1854.

Alfred Lord Tennyson in 1869
Alfred Lord Tennyson in 1869

Alfred Tennyson had been Poet Laureate since 1850, but it was the Balaclava poem which carried his reputation far beyond literary and intellectual circles, turned him into the nation’s poet and made an indelible impression on what his own and subsequent generations felt about the Crimean War. To the poet’s chagrin, it was far more popular than his earlier ode on the death of the Duke of Wellington, which he considered a much better piece of work. It was written at Farringford, the villa on the Isle of Wight, which Tennyson and his wife Emily, enchanted by the sea views, had rented before the outbreak of the war. In November he read the account of the Light Brigade’s gallant charge in The Times which spoke of ‘a hideous blunder’. In Tennyson’s mind this turned into the crucial line ‘Some one had blundered’. He dashed the poem off in only a few minutes on December 2nd and sent it to the London Examiner, which printed it a week later.

Tennyson had mainly been busy in 1854 writing ‘Maud’, his own favourite among his poems, which he completed in April 1855 and published in July in a slender volume along with the Wellington ode and an altered version of the Light Brigade ballad, which left out ‘Some one had blundered’. Critics had spoken reprovingly of rhyming ‘blundered’ with ‘hundred’ and Tennyson was uneasy about it. He was even less easy about the deletion, however. A letter from a chaplain at the Scutari military hospital told him that the ballad was a tremendous favourite with the men and that the best thing Tennyson could do would be to send copies out to the Crimea for them. Early in August the poet restored ‘Some one had blundered’ in what became the final version. This was issued with a note from Tennyson: ‘Having heard that the brave soldiers at Sebastopol, whom I am proud to call my country-men, have a liking for my ballad on the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava, I have ordered a thousand copies of it to be printed for them. No writing of mine can add to the glory they have acquired in the Crimea; but if what I heard be true, they will not be displeased to receive these copies of the ballad from me, and to know that those who sit at home love and honour them.’

The ‘Maud’ volume sold so well that the Tennysons were able to buy Farringford, while the Light Brigade ballad remained the most widely familiar and admired of all Tennyson’s works. Long afterwards, in 1890, when the aged poet was persuaded to bawl bits of his verse down a tube for primitive gramophone recordings, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ was among the selections, and when he was buried in solemn state in Westminster Abbey two years later, veterans of Balaclava lined the aisle.

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