Since his death his critical reputation has had its ups and downs: W. H. Auden described his genius as essentially lyrical and the general consensus has been that the longer narrative poems he spent so much time on are less successful, though this view has begun to be challenged. However, he remains the defining English poet of the Victorian era, nowhere more so than in his famous Archive-featured poem 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' (1854) which commemorates an infamous incident from the Crimean War. In the course of this action, undertaken in error due to misinterpreted orders, the Light Brigade (that is cavalry bearing only light arms) attempted to capture the Russian gun redoubts at Balaclava with disastrous results. Of the six hundred and seventy three men who charged down "The Valley of Death" only a hundred and ninety five survived unwounded. News of the charge and its bloody consequences reached London three weeks later and there was an immediate public outcry. The news affected Tennyson who wrote his poem in commemoration of their courage only a few minutes after reading an account in The Times. It was immediately popular, even reaching the troops back in the Crimea where it was distributed in pamphlet form.
Less well-known is Tennyson's celebration of a more successful action during the same battle, 'The Charge of the Heavy Brigade'. This was written much later in 1882 at the prompting of a friend which is perhaps why it fails to capture the white-hot creative burst of the first poem. The "three hundred" mentioned are the men of the Heavy Brigade and their commander, Sir James Yorke Scarlett, but the poem never caught the public's imagination. Nevertheless, it is of historical interest to hear the two poems side by side which we're able to do thanks to a remarkable recording made in 1890. These poems and eight others were recorded on a set of twenty three soft wax cylinders. Although their age and the primitive technology sometimes renders a word inaudible, Tennyson's voice comes through clearly, intoning the pounding dactylic rhythms of the verse which gives it a breathless momentum.