GCSE English Literature: Power and Conflict Poetry: How do the poets present the experience of conflict in The Charge of the Light Brigade and Remains?

This AQA GCSE Literature answer was thrown together whilst also supporting my year 10 class. If there are odd points it is because I was scrolling up and down, so they could look at sections to help them scaffold, and printing out planning sheets (luckily this time I was not asked if cats lay eggs).

I ask my students to use PEAC to help them plan: Their POINT should link to a poetic technique. The EVIDENCE should be a short quotation. The ANALYSIS should explain how the evidence proves the point (I find that the words “the reader” and “because” are invaluable here). The CONTEXT part is the inclusion of any material which explains the way the time of production or reception of the poem shapes the meaning.

Oh – and if you want to trouble the top end of the mark scheme try to write about both language (choice and techniques) AND structure and form. Think about the way the rhyme, layout and other choices affect both the feel and the meaning of the poems.

In my answer however I blend all the PEAC ideas into single paragraphs. All the sections are there but they are more fluid. This is what you can do once you have all the bits of a response working properly. Hopefully you can see that and do the same in your own writing.

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Question: How does the poet present the experience of conflict in The Charge of the Light Brigade and one other poem from the anthology?

Tennyson and Armitage have very different views concerning the experience of conflict. This is reflected in the way that they write. Tennyson is writing a patriotic, martial and jingoistic celebration of a military disaster. Armitage is trying to explain the experience of a former soldier that he has met. This is reflected in the way that Armitage writes using graphic and violent active verbs such as “ripped.” This has the effect of creating a strong image for the reader and the entire phrase “ripped through his life” is metaphoric as well as graphic. In comparison Tennyson creates a very clean and sanitised scene in which the verb “sabr’ing” (combined with the verb “flashed”) creates a bloodless image; Tennyson is at pains to avoid descriptions of wounds.

If Tennyson is writing a piece that is designed to convey excitement at the thought of conflict he emphasises this by using rhythm. The opening section is made up of the repeated, anaphoric, phrase, “half a league, half a league, half a league onwards.” This creates an onomatopoeic effect and is supposed to evoke the sound of charging cavalry horses. It is clear that Victorian audiences found this thrilling as it was a popular poem (children were often required to recite it from heart). Armitage’s poem has a very different intended effect and is therefore constructed differently. Armitage is intending to replicate the fractured thoughts of a former soldier who is suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). As a result he fills his poem with enjambments. The most extreme of these is the split phrase “but I blink / and he bursts” which pushes the enjambment across two stanzas. This reinforces the effect of the incident on the speaker who is suffering from flashbacks. This is also made clear to the reader through the repetition of the phrase “probably armed, and possibly not.”

Another difference between the two poems is the voice that is created by the two writers. Tennyson is attempting to elevate the status of the doomed cavalrymen. His use of words such as “noble” and “honour” come from the semantic field of chivalry (knights, nobility and knighthood). The subject of the poem are the Victorian upper classes (as the Light Brigade was the most glamourous regiment) and this is reflected in the language used. In contrast Armitage takes pains to replicate the working class dialect of the soldier he is writing about. Colloquial expressions and idioms such as “sort of inside out”, “tosses his guts” and “letting fly” all help to remind the reader that the speaker is not a highly educated member of the upper classes (as in Tennyson’s poem) but a lower class individual who has little control over his situation.

Another key feature of Tennyson’s poem, in its presentation of conflict, is the use of weather imagery to help to replicate the experience of conflict. Words such as “stormed at” and “thundered” use the power of Nature to try to convey the power of cannons and rifles. This is very different to Armitage who is much more interested in the after-effects of violence. The powerful image created by the phrase “blood shadow” and the prosaic expression “I walk right over it week after week” is a motif that helps to flesh out the PTSD theme that Armitage is building.

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Another key difference between the poems in their presentation of conflict is the role that religious allusion and imagery plays. Tennyson seems to be linking the death of the soldiers to the sacrifice of Jesus. Phrases such as “the valley of death”, a reference to the Old Testament and “the mouth of hell” turn the event into a test of Christian faith. It could be argued that Tennyson is trying to turn the soldiers into martyrs with the use of the rhetorical question “when can their glory fade?” The religious sentiment is also present in his use of anaphora (repeated phrases) such as “Theirs not to”. This is a common technique in Christian hymns and psalms. Armitage’s poem, on the other hand, makes no use of religious allusion. His speaker is not religious but does seem to be fatalistic (he believes in luck and fate). He refers to “three of a kind”, which is both a way of spreading the blame but is also a reference to poker (a game which is based on luck).

There is one way in which both poems are similar in the way that they present the experience of conflict and that is in the way they present the soldier’s loss of individuality. In Armitage’s poem this can be understood through the speaker’s use of the words “all of the same mind”, “all letting fly” and “three of a kind”. The use of the collective pronouns “all” and “three” create a sense of group action and group responsibility. Similarly Tennyson avoids identifying individuals and refers to the soldiers as “them”, “theirs” and “the six hundred” which emphasises the idea that they are a single body (or in military terms a corps). The last phrase, “the six hundred” creates a new collective noun for the men (they already had one collective noun “The Light Brigade”) which fuses all of the individuals together in the reader’s imagination and tries to elevate them.

The final way the poems differ in the way they present the experience of conflict is in the way they present post-conflict. Tennyson’s poem contains no descriptions of wounds, injuries or pain. In fact his poem attempts, in the last stanza, to argue that by dying the soldiers have become immortal. Armitage’s poem, with its choppy caesuras, such as “pain itself, the image of agony”, and indeed use of words like “agony” presents the reader with an unflinching account of both conflict and its legacy. Tennyson’s poem has a regular rhyme scheme and a regular rhythm. This means that it feels ordered even though it is about the chaos of conflict. Armitages’s enjambments and caesura mean that the reader’s experience is much more like that of the post-conflict soldier; disjointed.

Both poems are about real events in which the military “blundered” (both the Crimean war and the invasion of Iraq were military failures) but “Remains” is considerably more realistic in the way it treats the banality of war and its effects on the individual.

 

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