Conscription and Heroism in Victorian England: A Comparison of “Childe Roland” and “Charge of the Light Brigade”

©November 2013 Mary Crockford

Through the dramatic monologues of “Charge of the Light Brigade” and “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” Alfred Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning typify the popular Victorian ethic of ascribing honor to military deaths that would otherwise be seen as senseless, and even suicidal. This was especially common immediately preceding and during the Crimean War period of 1853 to 1856, a time in Britain’s history that was characterized by rapid transnational expansion and increasingly vocal public and parliamentary debate. Many Victorian poets saw it as a matter of professional and personal obligation to comment regarding events and ramifications of the British imperial movement to the nation and its people. Speaking of this phenomenon, Matthew Reynolds writes, “It was in response to questions of political governance…that the High Victorian poets…did their most important writing.” (Tucker, 387)  By confronting, through their poems’ subjects, the internal landscape of identity and perception, as well as external landscapes colored by the ever-present prospect of defeat and death, both Tennyson and Browning ascribed to their protagonists the characteristics of courage and nobility, thereby transforming death into a conscious act of heroism and fulfillment of duty rather than failure and defeat.

Despite the unpopularity of the Crimean War, Alfred Lord Tennyson desired to convey his belief that for those facing the prospect of death in service to the British crown, dying was an act of moral courage and sacrifice. In “Charge of the Light Brigade”, written in 1854, Tennyson challenged the increasing public ambivalence surrounding British imperialism with his depiction of the Battle of Balaclava, as reported by his contemporary, journalist William Russell. With the advent of war correspondency and expanding influence of newspapers, reports from the war front presented a significant challenge to an aristocracy previously shielded from vast public scrutiny (Lambert, para 30-35). In response to the cacophony of opposing views, as well as accusations of jingoism by some of his critics, commentator Stefanie Markovitz describes Tennyson as having “…felt the need to ‘do’ this war ‘in different voices” (481). As Britain’s poet laureate and a member of the aristocracy, Tennyson was himself a staunch nationalist. Nonetheless, in writing “Charge of the Light Brigade,” he identified himself with the public’s ambivalence as he described the deadly skirmish in terms of both strategic command error, and individual duty and honor. The poem begins in media res, with its requisite sense of uncertainty as to the exact timing of the charge, and immediately Tennyson utilizes the combination of repetition and biblical imagery to draw the reader into an atmosphere of inexorability and urgency, as the soldiers and horses run headlong into a cataclysmic confrontation: “Half a league, half a league,/Half a league onward,/All in the Valley of Death/Rode the six-hundred.” (1-4)  Tennyson’s purposeful utilization of this and other poetic techniques, including dactylic meter to mimic the rhythm of rapid hoofbeats, impresses upon the reader the speed and intensity of the battle without forsaking the undaunted determination of the riders of the Brigade. Tennyson also uses a univocal, omniscient narrator to portray the brigade as a single character, and personifies as a ravenous beast the doom that awaits them collectively: “Boldly they rode and well,/Into the jaws of Death,/Into the mouth of hell/Rode the six hundred.” (III, 6-10 ) This unity of decision that Tennyson conveys is symbolically significant. As Markovitz explains, “the ballad’s apparent univocalism masks a much more complicated response to the war” (485).  Tennyson’s use of depersonalization on the part of the riders, coupled with depicting Death as a voracious and devouring power, reflects the rising tension in Britain at the time between factions still clamoring for national unity, and of those decrying its supporters as aggressively expansionist warmongers.

If war poetry, Markovitz states, “traditionally works to bring voices into unison,” Tennyson’s task was complicated by the ‘armchair quarterbacking’ and finger-pointing the story of the Light Brigade inspired (481.) As the British public was after the fact, the soldiers of the Light Brigade are portrayed as clearly aware of their mission from the beginning, and of its folly. Nonetheless, Tennyson portrays only their courage and determination to complete their task: “Was there a man dismayed?/Not though the soldier knew/Someone had blundered.” (II, 2-4) In keeping with Tennyson’s purpose, the epic’s narrator does not dwell on the illogicality of the soldiers’ obedience. As both reflections and projections of Tennyson’s own nationalist loyalties, the soldiers did not allow for the possibility of disobedience, and such an action’s resulting dishonor. It is not until the last stanza of the poem, however, that Tennyson departs from the language and imagery of war and openly demands, with his own poetic finger in the public chest, that the reader agree with his own purpose in writing “Charge of the Light Brigade”: “Honour the charge they made!/Honour the Light Brigade,/Noble six-hundred!” (VI: 4-6)

Robert Browning wrote “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”, described by Isobel Armstrong as the poet’s “prophetic Crimean-war poem,” in 1852 (Markovitz 492). Many scholars and commentators would also come to view the poem as a prescient, and more critical view, of the war upon which Tennyson would soon after base his ballad. In the medievally inspired parabolic poem, Browning chronicles the journey of its namesake, an untested cavalier of unknown age and identity, en route to vanquish an evil and seemingly indestructible beast residing in a Dark Tower. Uncertainty of outcome pervades “Childe Roland,” even more so than in “Charge of the Light Brigade”, in part because it is an entirely fictional work without benefit of historical verification or clear ending. Despite having a singularly conflicted protagonist in Roland, Browning’s view of conscription is far less ambiguous than Tennyson’s as he indirectly critiques what Isobel Armstrong calls “…the coercive ideology of heroism, the black mythos which was to cause such carnage in the Crimean war” (Markovitz 492).

Like the soldiers of Tennyson’s “Charge,” Browning commences Roland’s journey in media res, and abruptly challenges the reader to sympathize with Roland’s confusion and fear as he is called upon to singlehandedly destroy a terrifying and invisible foe. Along the way, the apprentice knight must traverse the arduous ground of his own identity and perceptions, as he faces a quest for which he was not only trained up, but conscripted, and in which every knight before him has been killed. Roland already laments the journey’s inevitable and fatal conclusion by describing his environment in terms of futility, deception and decay. The first sight to which the would-be knight treats the reader is of himself, in the form of a misshapen and malevolent figure who goads him into questioning his own trustworthiness: “My first thought was, he lied in every word,/That hoary cripple, with malicious eye/Askance to watch the working of his lie/On mine…” (I: 1-4).  In the young cavalier’s fatalistic frame of mind, he seeks only to complete his act of service, rather than add to the waste he perceives all around him by nurturing a vain hope of survival. Over and over, the reader has cause to question whether Roland is a narrator who can be believed, as despair and confusion threaten his lucidity and sense of purpose:

                                              “For, what with my whole world-wide wandering,

                                               What with my search drawn out thro’ years, my hope

                                               Dwindled into a ghost not fit to cope

                                               With that obstreperous joy success would bring,

                                               I hardly tried now to rebuke the spring

                                               My heart made, finding failure in its scope.” (IV: 1-6)

Browning’s use of poetic method to elucidate Roland’s embattled psychological state is brilliant, as in Line 3 he separates the knight’s hope from him by dividing it from the following line, rendering him through the subtle use of enjambment into a shade unable to accept the weight and gravity of his quest. It is here that Browning reveals the soldier’s greatest foe may be himself, and the fear lurking behind his own eyes: “If at his counsel I should turn aside/Into that ominous tract which, all agree/Hides the Dark Tower. Yet acquiescingly/I did turn as he pointed…” (III, 1-4).  Once Roland denies the lure of his own self-doubt and obeys the spectral finger’s directive, he is continually confronted with the need to continue on his quest despite someone, or something, mocking him with its futility. By this point the reader must ask whether Roland is brave and honorable, or simply forced by circumstances of birth and war into service. To complicate matters further, Roland may even be mad. Browning seems to offer the possibility that a soldier can be all these things at various moments, sympathizing with Roland’s loneliness of purpose as, “quiet as despair”, he impels himself forward: “Nothing but plain to the horizon’s bound./I might go on; nought else remained to do.” (IX: 5-6) Even nature itself becomes a reflection of his tortured imagination: “So, on I went. I think I never saw/Such starved ignoble nature; nothing throve:/For flowers—as well expect a cedar grove!” (X: 1-3)  Roland continues on, knowing his own mortality awaits him, and without the consolation of a purpose he can embrace as his own. He has not yet, as Kerry McSweeney writes, “transmuted a hateful reality into experience (para 15).” The harsh environment through which Roland travels, as much as the chaos of his own thoughts, conveys the comfortless landscape within his own mind. At the same time, it remains unclear to the reader if the plain through which he moves, with its ground and creatures laid waste by famine and war, is even real: “As for the grass, it grew as scant as hair/In leprosy; thin dry blades pricked the mud/Which underneath looked kneaded up with blood./One stiff blind horse, his every bone a-stare.” (XIII, 1-4)  Roland then describes the horse in his path in terms that reflect his own feelings of self-loathing: “I never saw a brute I hated so;/He must be wicked to deserve such pain.” (XIV, 5-6)  Like the riders of the Light Brigade, Roland soon finds himself at last in the vicinity of his enemy, though in Browning’s poem, neither soldier nor reader sees the face of an enemy horde. It is the Dark Tower, flanked by mountains suggestive of the bosom of mother country, that greet Roland and shock him into the imminence of his predestined end. “What in the midst lay but the Tower itself?/The round squat turret, blind as the fool’s heart,/Built of brown stone, without a counterpart/In the whole world….” (XXXI, 1-4)  Like Tennyson, Browning allows Roland a legacy of glory, but also allows him an equally glorious vision of his fallen compatriots in nearly angelic form. Roland has met his test in reaching the Dark Tower, what David Pfurr calls “the incarnation of his fear,” and “the mystery that plagues his dreams and poisons his reality” (Pfurr, para 8).  Roland stands triumphant if not yet victorious, in what McSweeney calls “the realm of purgatorial or paradisal radiance” (para 15).  Thus, even if Roland is not without madness, at least he and the noble dead preceding him are free of the specter of despair:

                                         “There they stood, ranged along the hill-sides, met

                                           To view the last of me, a living frame

                                           For one more picture! In a sheet of flame

                                           I saw them and I knew them all. And yet

                                           Dauntless to the slug-horn to my lips I set,

                                           And blew. “Childe Roland to The Dark Tower came.” (XXXIV, 1-6)

Throughout Browning’s and Tennyson’s careers, issues of national and individual identity would continue to be rich fodder for debate and expression. Further, with Victorian England’s increasingly literate population, the volume of public and private voices rose both in opposition and support of the nation’s imperialist campaigns. Poets like Browning and Tennyson served to reflect the conflicting concerns of those in favor of enlarging British sovereignty and anti-expansionists, while also revealing their own internal ambivalence through their poetry. Both insisted on the ascription of honor to their nation’s fallen, despite the forces of politics and social status for which they died. But it is there that clear similarities between “Charge of the Light Brigade” and “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” end. Browning’s poem looks back upon human history, using medieval imagery and allusions, as well as psychology and setting to comment on both his awe and horror at the ongoing futility of military conscription. Pre-Crimean Roland, unlike Tennyson’s soldiers, is given time and tacit permission to question. Even if he does not question his king or his nation’s military imperatives, at least he is permitted to inwardly debate his own fitness and the sensibility of his task. As commentator Michael Rahman puts it, Roland “indirectly contemplates the worthiness of the endeavor, when weighed against his survival” (Rahman, para 4).  Tennyson, though, could not allow “his” soldiers the luxury of doubt, as England’s continued engagement required “a complex negotiation of the terrain of patriotic martial poetry from the midst of a war that was notoriously marked more by dissonance than harmony” (Markovitz 481).  While Tennyson acknowledged the leadership error resulting in large numbers of dead at Balaclava, he brooked no questioning on the part of his audience as to the mettle of the men whose exploits he described, and thus “ensures that we know what to make of the actors” (Markovitz 484).  In both Roland’s march through delusion and death, and the error-driven charge of Tennyson’s riders “into the mouth of hell”, there is ample reason to believe that both poets held the view, at least in part, that the man of war rides on the back of madness.

Works cited:

Browning, Robert. “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” About.com Classic Literature. Web.

Lambert, Andrew. “The Crimean War.:” BBC History. Web. 2009.

Markovitz, Stefanie. “On the Crimean War and the Charge of the Light Brigade.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation, and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romantic and Victorian Poetry on the Net. Web.

McSweeney, Kerry. “What’s the import?”: indefinitiveness of meaning in nineteenth-century poems.” The Free Library 22 March 2002. Web.

Odgers, W. Blake, L.A., LL.D., Q.C. “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came—A Study of Browning’s Poetic Method.” The Parent’s Review. Vol. 11, 1900. Reprint. Web.

Pfurr, David. “Reflections of Confusion: Robert Browning’s Childe Roland to the DarkTower Came.” Assorted Essays. Weblog.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. “Charge of the Light Brigade.” National Center. Web.

Tucker, Herbert F. “Realms of Verse, 1830-1870. English Poetry in a Time of Nation-building by Matthew Reynolds.” Victorian Studies Vol. 45, No. 2. (Winter, 2003) pp. 387-389. Web.

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