Just before dawn on the morning of October 25, 2004, I was startled to hear the haunting voice of a man who had been dead for 114 years. In scratchy, barely audible words, the great poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson spoke from the grave. “Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do or die. Into the valley of death Rode the six hundred.” To hear these words spoken by the man who wrote them in 1854 caused me to sit, overwhelmed and trembling. What an awesome age we live in!
In 1890, Thomas Edison recorded Tennyson reciting some of the lines from his iconic The Charge of the Light Brigade. Two years later, Tennyson was dead. One wonders if either man could envision the intellectual wonder and emotional power that recording would have on this generation’s lovers of technology and poetry.
This recording of Tennyson’s words was broadcast on the 150th anniversary of that legendary cavalry charge. The story is well known. The orders were garbled and misinterpreted. As a result, more than 600 of the most gallant mounted soldiers on earth were ordered to charge across open round with enemy artillery positioned on both flanks and directly to the front. It was madness. But these courageous warriors obeyed their superiors without question and without complaint. Despite their unquestioned bravery and determination, the Light Brigade was, predictably, cut to pieces.
Anytime the question of manliness comes up, the discussion will turn, inevitably, to examples of steely-eyed discipline and unshakable commitment to duty and honor. The legendary sacrifice of the 300 Spartans, the heroic defense of the Alamo, Pickett’s Charge, the defiance of the allied defenders in the Battle of the Bulge, and on, and on.
I personally never met a man that claimed to be unmoved when these great examples of collective courage are retold.
But here’s a fathers’ dilemma. What do we teach our sons and daughters? Would we want them to follow order and charge into the valley of death even if any half-wit would know that this is suicide to no purpose? Of course we are all accustomed to subordinating our private impulses when to do so is seen as a gesture for the greater good. Does that mean that our children are to be lemmings and charge blindly wherever they’re told? We need them all to uphold the ideals of honor and duty even if to do so requires a level of self-sacrifice. But where do we tell them to draw the line? This is not a rhetorical question. I’d really like to know. My own children are now grown. But I have a toddler grandson and twins grandbabies on the way and I’d like offer some improvement over the flawed guidance I offered my kids.
Maybe these questions are as outdated as that scratchy old recording of Tennyson’s voice reading a quaint old poem that rhymes. But maybe some of these dated notions should be dusted off and played for a modern audience. This is a good week to spend some time thinking about it. December 9 is the 154th anniversary of the publication of The Charge of the Light Brigade. In the poet’s words, “Honor the charge they made! Honor the Light Brigade, noble six hundred.”
Anyway, on that morning in2004 when I thrilled to hear the dead poet reading his own immortal lines, they concluded the broadcast with a recording of a bugler playing the charge on the very instrument that called the Brigade to battle on that October morning in 1854. And I have to say, whether it was manly or not, I got choked up.
I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.
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Thu, December 11, 2008
by Michael Hinkle