July 8, 2009

Half a league

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
Someone had blunder'd:
Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do and 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 and 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 and Russian
Reel'd from the sabre stroke
Shatter'd and 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 and 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 wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.

A. L. Tennyson ~ “The Charge of the Light Brigade” circa 1870

Rivers noticed that Prior’s face lit up as he quoted the poem.
P. Barker Regeneration 1991 pg 66

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside
And it is ragin'.
It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.
B. Dylan “The Times They are a-changing” 1961

And now, we, who though we were going to live after all look back and with the cynical postmodern eye we grin at the times that are a-changing. Rivers quotes Tennyson in the hospital, and claims that he was once in love with the poem. I do not know if this is in the historical record, or if this is a fiction created by Barker, but this is the part of this novel that I focused on primarily.
For me, the character of Prior comes across as a very intelligent man. He is presented as learned and erudite. In some ways he is the most sympathetic character in the book, and I would make an argument of his being the protagonist in the novel, if it weren’t so balanced between Sassoon and Rivers. In my mind he represents the old guard. He is in the hospital with two very good poets, and he is the one that seems to be holding onto the old ideals. Tennyson’s poem romanticizes the warfare and the sacrifice that is inherent in such things. The poets that are living in the hospital with Prior have ceased to romanticize the work. Prior says that he love the poem once, but no more. I can imagine myself in his shoes and understand such a position.
This is a position that is not born wholly of cowardice. Fear of death is a logical man’s exemption from war, but there are times when the ruling classed suspend logic and reason in favor of sloganeering and appeals to patriotism. The ruling classes send the lambs to the slaughter and fight a war of bad ideas that they are mostly immune from the horrors. This has been seen time and time again throughout history. Even the commanders lie back and watch the young die for their causes. Napoleon rode into Russia with an army of half a million men. His army took heavy casualties, of cold, starvation, and wounds, but he himself was able to ride back to France.
But I digress. I think that this particular scene is a nod to the fact that the literary times were changing too. This war helped shake the yoke of Victorian sensibility and give rise to the moderns. Without it, our poets would still be romanticizing, and the young would be dying at the whims of the ruling elite.