Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose
Cabarfeidh - Highland Warriors brings us:
War Poem of the Week
The Last of the Light Brigade
There were thirty million English who talked of England's might,
There were twenty broken troopers who lacked a bed for the night.
They had neither food nor money, they had neither service nor trade;
They were only shiftless soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade.
They felt that life was fleeting; they knew not that art was long,
That though they were dying of famine, they lived in deathless song.
They asked for a little money to keep the wolf from the door;
And the thirty million English sent twenty pounds and four!
They laid their heads together that were scarred and lined and grey;
Keen were the Russian sabres, but want was keener than they;
And an old Troop-Sergeant muttered, "Let us go to the man who writes
The things on Balaclava the kiddies at school recites."
They went without bands or colours, a regiment ten-file strong,
To look for the Master-singer who had crowned them all in his song;
And, waiting his servant's order, by the garden gate they stayed,
A desolate little cluster, the last of the Light Brigade.
They strove to stand to attention, to straighten the toil-bowed back;
They drilled on an empty stomach, the loose-knit files fell slack;
With stooping of weary shoulders, in garments tattered and frayed,
They shambled into his presence, the last of the Light Brigade.
The old Troop-Sergeant was spokesman, and "Beggin' your pardon," he said,
"You wrote o' the Light Brigade, sir. Here's all that isn't dead.
An' it's all come true what you wrote, sir, regardin' the mouth of hell;
For we're all of us nigh to the workhouse, an, we thought we'd call an' tell.
"No, thank you, we don't want food, sir; but couldn't you take an' write
A sort of 'to be continued' and 'see next page' o' the fight?
We think that someone has blundered, an' couldn't you tell 'em how?
You wrote we were heroes once, sir. Please, write we are starving now."
The poor little army departed, limping and lean and forlorn.
And the heart of the Master-singer grew hot with "the scorn of scorn."
And he wrote for them wonderful verses that swept the land like flame,
Till the fatted souls of the English were scourged with the thing called Shame.
O thirty million English that babble of England's might,
Behold there are twenty heroes who lack their food to-night;
Our children's children are lisping to "honour the charge they made-"
And we leave to the streets and the workhouse the charge of the Light Brigade!
-- Rudyard Kipling
As The Wondering Minstrels says:
Surprisingly enough, this is not one of Kipling's better known poems. Or, perhaps, not so surprising - while Tennyson's account of heroism in the face of overwhelming odds caught and stirred the public imagination, Kipling's scathingly acid revelation of the way the world treated its heroes seems, like most of the uncomfortable details connected with the war, to have been swept under the carpet. There is a glamour inherent in the charge of the Light Brigade - even though it was obvious "someone had blunder'd" - that the real life plight of Thomas Atkins, Esq., cannot match.
And of course, it was Thomas Atkins that Kipling was chiefly concerned with.
From his magnificent 'Tommy' to the unforgettable 'Gunga Din', Kipling saw war neither as the noble endeavour earlier poets made it out to be (sometimes stirringly heroic, sometimes ineffably sad, but always noble) or as the graphic nightmare later poets (most notably Wilfred Owen) splashed across the world's consciousness. Kipling's war poems were highly personal; his soldiers ordinary men doing a misunderstood and underappreciated job in the best way they could. (Like much else of Kipling, this attitude is no longer fashionable; the which, of course, detracts nothing from his poetry,but does help explain its fluctuating repute).
Though the BBC takes a slightly different view:
Kipling's poetry works will live on to document the excesses of class and racial attitudes of 19th century Britain and British Imperialism. Kipling's poetry has earned for him equal measures of both lasting fame and infamy.