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Friday, March 21, 2014

"The Charge of the Light Brigade," But Not the One You Think

The current tensions over Crimea perhaps inevitably bring to mind a previous Russian/European conflict over the Black Sea area--the Crimean War of the 1850s. Although the war has generally been little remembered in the West (although apparently in Russia it is another story), one aspect has resounded in popular memory: the charge of the Light Brigade.

This costly and futile British charge against a well-defended battery in the Battle of Balaklava on October 25, 1854 inspired the famous poem by Lord Tennyson. The Times account of the event, which included the phrase "a hideous blunder," was the source for Tennyson's line "Someone had blundered," which he controversially rhymed with "six hundred." Tennyson made a phonograph recording of the poem in 1890, which you can hear here.

Interestingly, the Rosenbach does not appear to have an early printing of Tennyson's Light Brigade (which was published in The Examiner on December 9, 1854 and included with the printing of Maude in July of the following year) , but it does have a copy of another poem with the same name, published in St. Louis in 1861.

Charles Casey, The Charge of the Light Brigade. St. Louis, 1861. A 861c

This Charge of the Light Brigade was written by a Charles Casey and although it was published six years after the events it describes, the introduction is signed and dated January, 1855, so it was written much closer to the actual event and only a month after Tennyson's poem was first published. I haven't been able to find out anything about Casey or about his poem. If anyone has any information, I'd be very interested to know. In any event, here is a brief excerpt  of The Charge of the Light Brigade by Charles Casey.

In two wavy glittering lines, onward they sweep--
Their eye on the foe, their steeds on the leap.
Their sword grip is tightened,
Held hard is their breath,
As they ride in their pride
Down that valley of death.

And the cheeks of the gazers grew pale at the sight;
As that war-wave swept on in its glory and might.

For. right in their front there runs
Aline of some thirty guns,
With the bravest of Russia's sons
Drawn up behind them.
Cannon on either flank,
Infantry rank on rank,
But none or paused or shrank,
No--they don't mind them.

On they dash, through the crash
Of the grape through their rank,
As hail smites down the meadow__
Smote down front and flank,
Down goeth man and steed,__
None now to pause or head
Mingled they groan and bleed,
wounded and dying.
Yet some lift their gory head, E'er their last breath has fled, To see how their comrades sped,
On the guns flying


Six hundred light horsemen in gallant array,
Charged gaily the Russ at the noon of the day:
Two hundred light horsemen, at eve on the plain--
Torn, bloody and shattered,--are all that remain.
But, like demi-gods, their laurels they have won,
And have writ in blood their name,
On the eternal roll of fame,
In five-and-twenty by the sun.

Kathy Haas is the Associate Curator at the Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia

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