Oct. 25, 2011

The Charge of the Light Brigade

by Alfred Tennyson

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.

'Forward, the Light Brigade!'
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
    Some one had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do & die:
Into the valley of Death
    Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
    Volley'd & thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
    Rode the six hundred.

Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army while
    All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack & Russian
Reel'd from the sabre-stroke,
Shatter'd & sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
    Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse & hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
    Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
    All the world wonder'd.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
    Noble six hundred!

"The Charge of the Light Brigade" by Alfred Tennyson. Public domain. (buy now)

The birthday of Geoffrey Chaucer (books by this author), the first great English poet and author of The Canterbury Tales, is unknown, and so we instead remember him on the anniversary of his death, this day in the year 1400.

When Chaucer was a boy, his family lived in London. Little of his early life is known, the first glimpse of him coming in 1357 when he was a young page in a noble household. In 1359, Chaucer fought with the English army during the invasion of France, was taken prisoner, ransomed, and returned to England to spend the rest of his life in public service, becoming an esquire and a knight and fulfilling varied duties: comptroller for customs at the port of London, appointment as a commissioner of roads and as a forester, and engaging in secret diplomatic missions to foreign countries. Chaucer lived through several outbreaks of plague, including the Black Death, and witnessed the social and economic aftermath of the decimation of the English population.

Chaucer's great patron was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and third son of the king, and as John of Gaunt's power waxed and waned, so did Chaucer's fortunes. In 1366, Chaucer married Phillipa Pan, a "damsel of the queen's bedchamber," most probably becoming a father of two. From his writings, of which the only truly acid passage is an invective against nagging and scolding wives, it seems that Chaucer's married life was not particularly happy, that he was cynical about marriage and apparently in love with another woman.

It is also possible to glean from Chaucer's writing that he was not a particularly good administrator and far from thrifty with his own money, but that he was a well-loved man with many friends, including numerous contemporary poets, one of whom declared Chaucer "the firste [sic] finder [poet] of our fair language."

There is no sure dating of Chaucer's work, although his first major composition was probably his elegy for the first wife of John of Gaunt. Troilus and Cresyde, a tale of tragic lovers set during the siege of Troy is sometimes regarded as his finest. But it is The Canterbury Tales that is generally seen as Chaucer's masterpiece, as well as one of the finest English poems in existence.

Making a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral was common in Chaucer's time; miracle stories connected to Becket's remains sprang up soon after his death, and many would travel to the shrine in hopes of securing their own. Chaucer's pilgrims, 29 of them as well as Chaucer himself, include a noble knight and his lusty squire, a superficial prioress, a boisterous and opinionated widow, and an unemployable academic, who set out from the Tabard Inn, which operated along the thoroughfare leading out from the London Bridge to Canterbury from 1300 until its destruction in the 19th century. As the pilgrims begin their journey, they agree to a friendly competition, each of them telling one story, the best storyteller to be rewarded with a free meal upon returning to the inn. The tales are funny, touching, bawdy, and humorously vulgar, and it is unfortunate for modern readers that Chaucer apparently never completed them, so that we will never know which pilgrim was the winner.

The Canterbury Tales is among the first English literary work to mention the use of paper. Books of Chaucer's day were written by hand on scraped and stretched animal skins and a large Bible could require hundreds of animals to complete, making the distribution of written materials impractical and expensive. For this reason, none of Chaucer's writing was printed in his day, and it is likely that his manuscripts were only circulated among his friends and remained unknown to most people until well after his death.

The final record of Geoffrey Chaucer came on September 29, 1400, when he signed a delivery receipt for a large cask of wine. Although there is no formal record of his death or of how he died, it is possible he was murdered as part of a political intrigue. But 1400 was yet another plague year, and it is just as possible that Geoffrey Chaucer perished of a more natural agent. Chaucer was buried in Westminster Abbey in honor of his position as Clerk of Works, with only a leaden plate to mark his burial.

It's the birthday of the artist Pablo Picasso, born in Malaga, Spain (1881), who was living in a bohemian community in Barcelona painting portraits of his friends and acquaintances when one of his paintings was selected for inclusion in the upcoming world's fair in Paris. He was just 18 — went off to Paris for the exhibition, saw paintings by Manet, Cézanne, Degas, and Toulouse-Lautrec, and came home determined to be an artist.

By the middle of the 20th century, he was generally considered the greatest living artist in the world. Pablo Picasso, who said, "Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life."

It's the birthday of comedienne Minnie Pearl (books by this author), born Sarah Ophelia Colley (1912) in Centerville, Tennessee, the youngest daughter of a well-to-do lumberjack. She majored in theater, taught dance lessons, and joined a theatrical troupe which went all over the south. While on tour she met a woman from the Alabama mountains whose manner of talking amused her. The young comedienne Sarah Colley imitated the mannerisms and mode of speech of the Alabama mountain woman in an act where she called herself "Cousin Minnie Pearl", which first appeared in 1939. Nashville radio executives saw the act and were impressed and in 1940 offered her the chance to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. It was a huge hit, and she'd continue with the Opry for more than 50 years.

She said, "The doctor must have put my pacemaker in wrong. Every time my husband kisses me, the garage door goes up."

It was on this day in 1854 that a British military disaster occurred in the Crimean War that inspired Alfred Tennyson to write his famous poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade." The British were fighting in the Crimean War to help defend Turkey from Russia. It was one of the first wars covered extensively by the European media, and British people read about it every morning in their newspapers. On this day in 1854, a British light brigade attempted to charge the Russian troops on a hill, but they misunderstood their orders and charged down the hill instead of up. Hundreds of British soldiers were surrounded and about 200 were killed.

The poet Alfred Tennyson was the current poet laureate of Great Britain at the time, and when he read the account of the disaster, he wrote the poem that became "The Charge of the Light Brigade" with the famous lines, "Their's not to reason why, / Their's but to do and die." Copies of the poem were rushed to print and distributed among the soldiers on the battlefield, and the poem became a kind of national anthem about self-sacrifice and duty. One of the only recordings we have of Tennyson's voice is a wax cylinder recording of him reading "The Charge of the Light Brigade" in 1890, two years before his death. His funeral in 1892 was a huge state affair, and the aisles were full of veteran survivors of that famous charge.

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