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The Last of the Light Brigade -- Rudyard Kipling

       
(Poem #357) The Last of the Light Brigade
 There were thirty million English who talked of England's might,
 There were twenty broken troopers who lacked a bed for the night.
 They had neither food nor money, they had neither service nor trade;
 They were only shiftless soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade.

 They felt that life was fleeting; they knew not that art was long,
 That though they were dying of famine, they lived in deathless song.
 They asked for a little money to keep the wolf from the door;
 And the thirty million English sent twenty pounds and four!

 They laid their heads together that were scarred and lined and grey;
 Keen were the Russian sabres, but want was keener than they;
 And an old Troop-Sergeant muttered, "Let us go to the man who writes
 The things on Balaclava the kiddies at school recites."

 They went without bands or colours, a regiment ten-file strong,
 To look for the Master-singer who had crowned them all in his song;
 And, waiting his servant's order, by the garden gate they stayed,
 A desolate little cluster, the last of the Light Brigade.

 They strove to stand to attention, to straighten the toil-bowed back;
 They drilled on an empty stomach, the loose-knit files fell slack;
 With stooping of weary shoulders, in garments tattered and frayed,
 They shambled into his presence, the last of the Light Brigade.

 The old Troop-Sergeant was spokesman, and "Beggin' your pardon," he said,
 "You wrote o' the Light Brigade, sir. Here's all that isn't dead.
 An' 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.

 "No, thank you, we don't want food, sir; but couldn't you take an' write
 A sort of 'to be continued' and 'see next page' o' the fight?
 We think that someone has blundered, an' couldn't you tell 'em how?
 You wrote we were heroes once, sir. Please, write we are starving now."

 The poor little army departed, limping and lean and forlorn.
 And the heart of the Master-singer grew hot with "the scorn of scorn."
 And he wrote for them wonderful verses that swept the land like flame,
 Till the fatted souls of the English were scourged with the thing called Shame.

 O thirty million English that babble of England's might,
 Behold there are twenty heroes who lack their food to-night;
 Our children's children are lisping to "honour the charge they made-"
 And we leave to the streets and the workhouse the charge of the Light Brigade!
-- Rudyard Kipling
            (1891)

Surprisingly enough, this is not one of Kipling's better known poems. Or,
perhaps, not so surprising - while Tennyson's account of heroism in the face
of overwhelming odds caught and stirred the public imagination, Kipling's
scathingly acid revelation of the way the world treated its heroes seems,
like most of the uncomfortable details connected with the war, to have been
swept under the carpet. There is a glamour inherent in the charge of the
Light Brigade - even though it was obvious "someone had blunder'd" - that
the real life plight of Thomas Atkins, Esq., cannot match.

And of course, it was Thomas Atkins that Kipling was chiefly concerned with.
From his magnificent 'Tommy' to the unforgettable 'Gunga Din', Kipling saw
war neither as the noble endeavour earlier poets made it out to be
(sometimes stirringly heroic, sometimes ineffably sad, but always noble) or
as the graphic nightmare later poets (most notably Wilfred Owen) splahsed
across the world's consciousness. Kipling's war poems were highly personal;
his soldiers ordinary men doing a misunderstood and underappreciated job in
the best way they could. (Like much else of Kipling, this attitude is no
longer fashionable; the which, of course, detracts nothing from his poetry,
but does help explain its fluctuating repute).

Personally? This is one of those poems to which comments seem almost
superfluous - suffice it to say that it made me shiver.

References:

  "Dowered with the hate of hate, the scorn of scorn,
  The love of love."
                  --  Tennyson, 'The Poet'.

  "Honour the charge they made!
  Honour the Light Brigade,
  Noble six hundred!
                  -- Tennyson, 'Charge of the Light Brigade'

  Oh, and don't miss the pun at the end :)

Links and Background:

  For more on Kipling's war poetry, see the commentary to Tommy
  (poem #43)

  For more background information on the Crimean war and the Light Brigade,
  see Tennyson's famous poem and the accompanying comments, poem #355

  How rooted in fact is today's poem? I couldn't find too many references -
  there was the following...

    "Kipling could make topical social comment with his poems and often did
    so. His poem "The Last of The Light Brigade took in context Tennyson's
    The Charge of The Light Brigade and the inexcusable treatment that the
    British Government gave the surviving veterans of that battle of
    Balakava during the Crimean War (where Florence Nightengale achieved
    immortatlity as a nurse)."

            -- [broken link] http://www.netten.net/~bmassey/page4.html#Kipling

  but there is no evidence that Tennyson 'wrote for them wonderful verses
  that swept the land like flame'. Still, all in all the rest is highly
  believable - to quote Suresh Ramasubramanian's comment on the previous
  poem, "Lord Cardigan, after the battle, calmly went back to his yacht and
  had dinner, as usual.  That huge and senseless loss was par for the
  course."

  And finally, for a Kipling biography, assessments and other random
  information, see the comments attached to his many other poems on
  Minstrels, [broken link] http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/index_poet.html

m.

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