Every year I play my oldest pupils (aged thirteen) the famous recording, made in 1890, of Tennyson reading “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” which has been memorably compared by Paul Muldoon to “a parakeet/ crying out in a hurricane.” When I did this in 2009, I was able to tell them, to their visible astonishment, that they had just been listening to the voice of a man who was born two hundred years ago. The bicentenary celebrations in England were dutiful rather than enthusiastic. Poetically and politically, Tennyson is a bit of an embarrassment; had the current Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, written about the Light Brigade, it would have taken the form of a monologue put into the mouth of the wife of one of the soldiers, denouncing the futility of the whole enterprise. Yet the sepia-tinted image of Tennyson, peering mystically (and myopically) into immeasurable distances, that persists in the public mind,...


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