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The Crimean War in Victorian Poetry

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Tai-Chun Ho

Cast in the shadow of the soldier-poets of the First World War, Victorian war poets have often been disparaged as «armchair patriots» glorifying military action in an unthinking fashion. Challenging this long-standing assumption, The Crimean War in Victorian Poetry considers the evolution of the figure of the homefront poet and explores the daunting task of representing war from a civilian perspective.

By virtue of the medium of modern reportage, the Crimean War (1854-1856) witnessed the inauguration of the civilian spectatorship of distant suffering, provoking a heated debate over the concept of the war poet and the function of war poetry during moments of national crisis. Confronted with news of soldiers’ hardships and of the distress caused by the government’s mismanagement of war, the so-called armchair poet sought ways of addressing the problem of pain and adversity from a distance and of engaging with the politics of war by composing lines of verse at home.

This is the first book-length study to examine the predicaments and achievements of mid-Victorian war poets. It provides historically nuanced readings of how a diverse group of British poets – ranging from the Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson to the highly acclaimed female poet Louisa Stuart Costello – fought a literary war as they reworked the established traditions of war poetry and experimented with poetic forms in response to news of distant combat.

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Afterword: The Afterlives of Crimean War Poetry

Extract

‘Glory to each and to all, and the charge that they made!

Glory to all the three hundred, the Heavy Brigade!’1

These are the last two lines of Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Heavy Brigade at Balaclava’, first printed in Macmillan’s Magazine in March 1882. On 25 October 1854, the charge of the Heavy Brigade was led by General James Yorke Scarlett (1799–1871). In his famous account of ‘The Cavalry Action at Balaklava’, published in The Times on 14 November, before turning to the debacle of the Light Brigade, William Howard Russell wrote at length of the victorious charge of the Heavy Brigade. He described vividly the emotional responses of the spectators: ‘ “God help them! they are lost!” was the exclamation of more than one man, and the thought of many … It was a fight of heroes.’ Despite being outnumbered by the Russians (‘Their first line was at least double the length of ours – it was three times as deep’), the cavalrymen broke through the enemy lines (‘By sheer steel and sheer courage Enniskillener and Scot were winning their desperate way right through the enemy’s squadrons’).2 Russell ended his narrative of the Heavy Brigade by remarking that ‘Lord Raglan at once despatched Lieutenant Curzon, Aide-de-Camp, to convey his congratulations to Brigadier-General Scarlett, and to say “Well done” ’.3 This successfully executed ←269 | 270→military action, however, was entirely obscured by the sensation and controversy generated by the subsequent ‘blunder’ of the Light Brigade....

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