A while back, I was reading a poem called Counter-Attack, by Siegfried Sassoon — a First World War poet. The poems from that period tend to be gruesome, unpleasant, evoking the mud, stench and death of trench warfare.
An excellent example of such poems is Dulce et Decorum Est, by Wilfred Owen, relating the aftermath of a chlorine gas attack. The following passage gives an idea of the themes:
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues
The poem finishes with an iconic yet ironic reference to Horace:
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
The latter two lines are Latin for It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s fatherland to die. (The full poem.)
While reading Counter-Attack, I noticed a very familiar pattern.
An officer came blundering down the trench:
“Stand-to and man the fire step!” On he went …
Gasping and bawling, “Fire-step … counter-attack!”
Then the haze lifted. Bombing on the right
Down the old sap: machine-guns on the left;
And stumbling figures looming out in front.
In the end, the counter-attack fails, and the narrator dies.
Lost in a blurred confusion of yells and groans …
Down, and down, and down, he sank and drowned,
Bleeding to death. The counter-attack had failed.
The pattern of ‘blundering’, followed by ‘on the right, on the left, out in front’, then finally, a brutal end to their attack — it’s a clear reference to Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, a poem written in 1854, relating a failed charge by a cavalry brigade during the Crimean war.
The intention was for them to attack a shattered Turkish position. Instead, through a miscommunication, they were sent towards a full-strength artillery position, taking heavy casualties. The full poem is beautiful, but for brevity’s sake, I will only quote the relevant passages.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
The irony Sassoon intended is in the ending. Similar to the First World War charge into machine guns and barbed wire, the Light Brigade got slaughtered. However, Tennyson regards their failed attack in a decidedly more positive respect:
When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!
Sassoon’s intent here must have been to illustrate the utter futility of the war; the total lack of heroism, leaving only the reality of mud and death, by contrasting it to the supposed glory of the charge by the Light Brigade.
It was cool to notice this reference. The Charge of the Light Brigade is one of my favorite poems, and encountering it in this context was a total surprise.