Alfred Tennyson and Siegfried Sassoon approach the subject of war in different ways. While Tennyson gives the impression that the soldiers who are mentioned in his poem are heroes, Sassoon does not try to glorify war and shows us the bloody realism of conflict.
An important point to note is the date when Tennyson wrote “The Charge Of The Light Brigade”. It was written on April 10 1864; almost ten years after the actual battle took place. Tennyson understood that if he were to write it soon after the battle, people would not like it, as the morale of the nation would have been low after such a defeat. He was a popular poet of the time and swayed to public opinion, and releasing the poem straight after the war could damage his reputation.
Sassoon did not have such a reputation to uphold and since he had served in the military during the war, he was able to give a first hand account of the shocking brutality of war. While the purpose of Tennyson’s poem would have been to raise public spirits, Sassoon’s was to educate the people about war and how terrible it was.
The attitude in Tennyson’s poem is varied. He praises the soldiers for their bravery (“Cannon to the right of them, Cannon to the left of them, and condemns those who did not fight, most notably the captains, and calls into question the military hierarchy (“Someone had blunder’d: Their’s not to make reply, Their’s not to reason why, Their’s but to do and die:”). He does this subtly and avoids naming the captain who had blundered, as doing this could cause public uproar and he could be held responsible. Toward the end of the poem, particularly the last stanza, the attitude is very upbeat, almost as if they had won the battle (“When can their glory fade? O the wild charge they made! All the world wonder’d. Honour the charge they made! Honour the Light Brigade, Noble six hundred!”). In this stanza, the word “wonder’d” is ambiguous. It could mean wondered, as at first glance it may seem to, or it could also mean amazed, depending on which way it is interpreted. With those six lines, he turns defeat into heroism, and makes the soldiers out to be heroes.
Sassoon’s attitude is very downbeat, and he does not try to glorify things like Tennyson does in his final stanza. He gives an honest, brutal account of war and its consequences. The attitude is the same throughout, unlike the varying attitude in Tennyson’s.
Tennyson tries to help the public understand the poem with the inclusion of a bible passage. In the first stanza, he writes “Into the valley of Death”. This is a quote from Psalms 23, and as many people were highly religious and attended church in Victorian times, including a bible phrase in the poem would help them to understand. Sassoon’s contains very little biblical reference, apart from a single crude reference at the very end (“O Jesus, make it stop!”). This is probably because Sassoon made his poem easy to understand and unlike Tennyson’s poem, there are no cryptic or ambiguous phrases. Sassoon draws the reader into the battle, but it seems fairly linear compared to Tennyson’s. He uses the phrase “Rode the six hundred” three times, and this gives an impression of the grand scale of the battle. Another word that he repeats many times is “Death.” He uses it to make it seem inevitable that the soldiers are about to die, despite them battling bravely and standing up to gunfire (“Boldly they rode and well, Into the jaws of Death”). In Sassoon’s poem, he does not use the word at all but strongly hints that the same fate awaits the soldiers.
There are many metaphors in Sassoon’s poem. He starts it with the ljne “At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun”, which gives an impression of an enormous, intimidating ridge emerging from the darkness. It is a good metaphor to use and helps build up atmosphere at the start of the poem, as does the next line (“In the wild purple of the glow’ring sun”).
The line “The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one, Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire” suggests that this is not the first battle but that it has been the scene of many battles before. The second part gives visions of these enormous machines peering out from over the top of the slope, coming toward the soldier clumsily. These are both effective lines and add to the atmosphere before the actual battle begins.
“Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear, They leave their trenches, going over the top” is an important line in the poem. It tells us that the soldiers are frozen with fear, as if emotionless because they know that they are soon to die. “Going over the top” is a common war phrase and people would instantly recognise this and understand what it means. The soldiers realise that they will die anyway so they charge over the top to fight the enemy. This is an important line in the poem, as it envisages just how brutal and shocking war can be.
The final line of the poem (“Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!”) tells us how the soldiers fall and struggle on the muddy battlefield, and the second part of the line makes the first part seem even more effective in expressing the soldiers desperation and torment. People at the time would have been angry that Sassoon had used Jesus’ name so casually because they were very religious in Victorian times. His finishing line is very different to Tennyson’s, who praises the soldiers and ends on an upbeat attitude. Sassoon does not glorify war at all.
Although Tennyson does not use many metaphors, he uses other effects such as alliteration, repetition and anaphora to great effect. His first line (“Half a league, half a league, Half a league onward”) is anaphoric. He uses is to good effect and makes it sound like horses hooves clattering rhythmically on the ground. One instance where he uses repetition to good effect is in the fourth stanza (“Cannon to the right of them, Cannon to the left of them, Cannon behind them”). This tells us that they were surrounded, with nowhere to go but they fought on bravely and is very atmospheric. Also in the fourth stanza, which seems to be the main stanza describing battle, he writes “Reel’d from the sabre-stroke, Shatter’d and sunder’d”. This is a good example of alliteration. He makes the soldiers seem down and out, shaken by the battle and with no energy left, only for them to ride heroically back into the valley.
While he does not glorify war in any way, he celebrates the soldiers who died during the battle and turns their defeat into heroism.