The Last of the Light Brigade

Notes on the text

(edited by John McGivering)


[Verse 1]

Thirty million: the population of England was some 27 million in 1891, and – with Scotland and Wales – some 33 million.

troopers: in this context, cavalrymen under the rank of non-commissioned officer, the equivalent of private soldiers in the infantry.

[Verse 2]

life was fleeting …. art was long:  an echo of the Latin translation of an aphorism by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates: Ars longa, vita brevis, usually translated in English as ‘art is long, life is short’. The full text in Latin is:

Ars longa,
vita brevis,
occasio praeceps,
experimentum periculosum,
iudicium difficile.


art is long,
life is short,
opportunity fleeting,
experiment dangerous,
judgment difficult.

It should be noted that ars does not signify fine art but the art of some skilled activity – in this context, the art of medicine

they lived in deathless song: the Charge of the Light Brigade was celebrated in prose and verse, most memorably in Tennyson’s poem

[Verse 2]

to keep the wolf from the door:  to ward off starvation.

[Verse 3]

the man who writes: Lord Tennyson – see above

[Verse 4]

colours: the Regimental Colours – the regimental flags which used to be carried into battle. See “The Mutiny of the Mavericks” in Life’s Handicap, page 223, line 19.

ten-file strong: Twenty men in two ranks, one behind the other as in a battalion on parade. Each pair formed a ‘file’ and the strength of a unit was measured in the number of files on parade. (See ‘Danny Deever’, The Military Setting)

Master-singer: a highly-accomplished singer; an echo of “The Mastertersingers of Nuremberg” by the German opera composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883). Here it is a reference to Altred, Lord Tennyson, who was Poet Laureate from 1850 until his death in 1892, and wrote “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

[Verse 5]

stand to attention: Stand upright, with the head up, the back straight, the chin in, and the hands down by the sides. See “The Debt” in Limits and Renewals p. 209 line 21.

[Verse 6]

the mouth of hell: an echo of Verse 4 of Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

workhouse: The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 provided that no able-bodied person could get poor relief unless they went to live in special workhouses, where they had to work, often in very harsh conditions, for their food and accommodation. They were greatly feared by the poor and old.

[Verse 7]

someone has blundered: an echo of the first verse of Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

[Verse 8]

“the scorn of scorn”: an echo the first verse of Tennyson’s “The Poet”:

The poet in a golden clime was born,
With golden stars above;
Dower’d with the hate of hate, the scorn of scorn,
The love of love…


he wrote for them wonderful verses: We have not yet been able to trace further verses by Tennyson supporting the appeal, as Kipling suggests. Any information from readers will be appreciated.

[Verse 9 in the original version]

The following verse of Kipling’s poem appears in the St. James’ Gazette but is not collected.

They sent a cheque to the felon that sprang from an Irish bog;
They healed the spavined cab-horse; they housed the homeless dog;
And they sent (you may call me a liar), when felon and beast were paid,
A cheque, for enough to live on, to the last of the Light Brigade.”

The New York Times of November 2nd 1913, on the occasion of the death of Sir George Wombwell, the last surviving officer who had been in the charge, reported contributions from a Liberal Party fund to convicted Irish rebels (the felon … from an Irish bog), and to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (spavined cab-horse … homeless dog), with only the balance going to the survivors from the Light Brigade. This seems to be the rationale for Kipling’s poem.
The New York Times, of course, may have simply taken Kipling’s lines at their face value. We have not been able to verify these points from contemporary accounts.

The NYT also reported that Tennyson then wrote some further verses to encourage popular support for the survivors, and that this resulted in some more substantial contributions. We have not, however, yet traced these lines.

Spavin is a complaint affecting the legs of a horse.

[Verse 9 – as collected]

“honour the charge they made”: an echo of verse 6 of Tennyson’s poem.

the charge of the Light Brigade: a pun on charge – in this context meaning to look after.

The poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson,
was published in The Examiner on 9 December, 1854:

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:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs 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.
Honour the charge they made,
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.


See The Poems of Tennyson edited by Christopher Ricks, (Longmans Green & Co Ltd,1969, p. 1034) for a note listing variants, and explaining how Tennyson wrote his first version in a few minutes after reading the report in The Times.

[J McG.]

©John McGivering 2010 All rights reserved