Crimea A River
One of the dangers and attractions of writing is the temptation of free association. The headlines about the Crimea naturally lead the mind to Tennyson's poem about the immortal Charge of the Light Brigade, which was if you remember, was entirely a mistake. "Lord Raglan, overall commander of the British forces, had intended to send the Light Brigade to pursue and harry a retreating Russian artillery battery, a task well suited to light cavalry. Due to miscommunication in the chain of command, the Light Brigade was instead sent on a frontal assault against a different artillery battery, one well-prepared with excellent fields of defensive fire."
Today's movie makers would probably turn the incident into a sardonic commentary on the futility of human existence. But in an era when mortality was universally accepted, the manner of their acceptance of fate's jest was something magnificent. So we remember the six hundred, frozen in time, in vigor and bravery:
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!
"Charge for the guns!" he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
We meet them again years later, when their glory had considerably dimmed, in Rudyard Kipling's poem, nearly as famous, The Last of the Light Brigade, showing the remnant starving in an old soldier's home, reduced to mendicancy.
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.
We learn from Kipling's poem what Tennyson's verses forget to tell us in his clangorous verse: that the true condition of heroism is the memory of yourself as you would want to be remembered. It's a phantom that bestows neither riches nor immortality nor even gratitude; something that is just a secret between yourself and your God.
Kipling would make the argument more explicitly in Soldier an' Sailor, which tells of the self-sacrifice of the soldiers on the transport Birkenhead, who left the lifeboats to "women and children first".
To take your chance in the thick of a rush, with firing all about,
Is nothing so bad when you've cover to 'and, an' leave an' likin' to shout;
But to stand an' be still to the Birken'ead drill
is a damn tough bullet to chew,
An' they done it, the Jollies -- 'Er Majesty's Jollies --
soldier an' sailor too!
Their work was done when it 'adn't begun; they was younger nor me an' you;
Their choice it was plain between drownin' in 'eaps
an' bein' mopped by the screw,
So they stood an' was still to the Birken'ead drill, soldier an' sailor too!
We're most of us liars, we're 'arf of us thieves,
an' the rest are as rank as can be,
But once in a while we can finish in style
(which I 'ope it won't 'appen to me).
But it makes you think better o' you an' your friends,
an' the work you may 'ave to do.
The idea of "women and children first" was, to mix our metaphors again, probably the most important law enacted by the unacknowledged legislators of the world. It's writ was tested on the Titanic at the turn of the 20th century. And it is to this subject to which Tennyson comes at last -- via YouTube -- in Crossing the Bar, widely regarded as his epitaph.
The shock loss of the Titanic is unappreciated today. It's impact can be imagined if we imagine the Space Shuttle crashing into the World Trade Center while the Oscars were being awarded there with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates in attendance. That golden ship represented not only the apotheosis of technology, but of fame, beauty and wealth.
But it also represented the last of the light brigade; the final bow of a kind of heroism that was up until then, in vogue. As Walter Lord, the author a Night to Remember, the classic story of the shipwreck of the Titanic put it, "...men would go on being brave, but never again would they be brave in quite the same way."
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Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.
Perhaps not in the same way. But they would find their own way, as they always have done.
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