The first was the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 in which the outnumbered English army defeated the French in a major battle of the Hundred Years War. The battle took place on Saint Crispin’s Day, a feast day honoring the Christian saints Crispin and Crispinian. The English were led by their king Henry V who joined his soldiers in hand-to-hand combat at Agincourt.
Though history does not record exactly what Henry said that day, William Shakespeare, in his play Henry V (Act IV, Scene iii), imagines what Henry might have said to spur the undermanned English to action. In a speech of 49 lines, Henry expresses his confidence that they will win and that each year as they near St. Crispin’s Day they will look back and remember their glorious victory and the bond they share with their brothers in arms (1).
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day. (2)
More than 400 years later in 1854, Britain and France joined forces against Russia in the Crimean War. On October 25, 1854, the British Light Brigade under the command of General James Cardigan rode into history. Following an ambiguous order to charge into a treeless valley surrounded by Russian field artillery, hundreds of British horsemen were mowed down as they swept across the open ground. Miraculously some of the horsemen managed to temporarily disable the Russian guns and return under fire across what would become known as “the valley of the shadow of death.” The charge, although courageous, resulted in senseless carnage. Of the 673 British horsemen who began the charge, only 198 survived (3).
The British cavalry’s charge was immortalized in verse by Britain’s poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson. The poet penned the narrative poem on December 2, 1854, after reading an account of the battle in the British newspapers. On December 9, 1854, the poem entitled “The Charge of the Light Brigade” appeared in The Examiner.
The six-stanza poem immediately became popular, and even today its famous lines capture the plight of common soldiers, nobly and courageously following the orders of their superior:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred. (4)
Today’s Challenge: Make History in Poetry
What historical event would you immortalize in verse? What makes the event worth remembering? Brainstorm some events from history that are worthy of being immortalized in verse. Select the one you like the best, and compose a narrative poem (a la “The Charge of the Light Brigade”) or a speech in verse (a la “The Saint Crispin’s Day Speech”). (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)
1-March, W.B. and Bruce Carrick. 365: Your Date With History. Cambridge, UK: Icon Books, 2004: 526-7.
2-Shakespeare, William. Henry V. 1599. Public Domain.
3- March, W.B. and Bruce Carrick. 366: A Leap Year of Great Stories. Cambridge, UK: Icon Books, 2007: 342.
4-Tennyson, Alfred Lord. The Charge of the Light Brigade. 1854. Public Domain.