The Defence of Lucknow: by Alfred Tennyson - Summary & Analysis

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      Summary: The Defence of Lucknow written March 1879 is a heroic ballad. This ballad on the valour of English celebrating the victory of British army in the Lucknow Residency is typically imperialistic in its point of view. The situation refers to the siege of the Lucknow Residency during the outbreak of the mutiny in the Indian army, more commonly 'known as 'Sepoy Mutiny' (1857). From the ruler's point of view the Indian mutiny brought out the treachery, the savage and cruel nature of the Indian, while for eminent Indian historians like Ramesh Chandra Mazumdar, it was the first great and direct challenge to the British rule in India which furnished a historical basis for the struggle for Independence.

      Historical Background: On 29th March, 1857, the sepoys at Barrackpur refused to use greased cartridges and one Brahmin sepoy, Mangal Pandey of 34 N.I. wounded a European officer. The regiment was disbanded and Pandey was executed. At Meerut, in May 1857, 85 Sepoys of the 3rd Cavalry regiment on their refusal to use the greased cartridges were court marshalled and were sentenced to long term imprisonment. Gradually this revolt spread over Northern and Central India including Lucknow. The revolt of Lucknow was a led by Begum Hazrat Mahal, who declared her son Birjis Kader as the Nawab of Awadh. Helped by the sepoys at Lucknow and the zamindars and peasants of Awadh, the Begum organised an all out attack on the British. Sir Henry Lawrence - was killed during the course of the siege of the Residency. Later on, General Outram and Havelock forced their way into the Residency. They were also besieged but later on were released.

      Tennyson as an Imperialist: Compared with Byron and Shelley, it is natural to assume that Tennyson had no trace of sympathy with the struggles of the people to resist tyranny or foreign domination, though Tennyson's enthusiasts point to one of his earlier sonnets where he speaks with enthusiasm of Poland's fight for freedom. We may well imagine what attitude towards freedom men like Carlyle and Tennyson would have taken if by any freak of fortune they had been sent down as Viceroys of India during the British regime. Tennyson believed in the great man theory, though he never confounded Might with Right. Tennyson was not free from many of the prejudices of Victorian period. He believed in the insularity of England - he was impressed with the Teutonic idea. He was the first of the British Imperial poets at a time when the idea of the Empire was, if embodied at all, disregarded. 'I always feel with the Empire' he wrote to Sir Henry Parkes; and he realized that only in a strong federation of the constituent parts of the Empire could the peace of the world be secured. At a time when retrenchment was the popular platform of politicians he raised his voice against the false economy of cutting down the naval estimates: 'The fleet of England is her all in all'.

      The Defence of Lucknow reflects his idea of Imperialism. The poem vehemently termed the Indian rebels, who are heroes in Indian eyes, as 'dark pioneer', 'myriad enemy' or 'fell mutineers'. His imperialistic idea clouded his vision that failed to comprehend the agony and frustrations that Indian sepoys were subjected to by the British army. In his later life Tennyson had fallen back into a frenzied Tory and Tennyson distrusted the forces of democracy. His obsessions with Imperialism made him blind and deaf towards his own earlier aspirations for the unity and brotherhood of mankind.

      Finally, he recognised the importance of India, the strength or weakness imparts to the rest of the Empire, and as he grew older he was more and more attracted to the philosophy and poetry of East.

      Critical Analysis: Tennyson's The Defence of Lucknow is comparatively less known of his poems and is hardly ever anthologized. However, in its speed and rhythm, in its visuals and aural effects it is of equal, if not of higher, excellence to the more famous The Charge of the Light Brigade.

      This poem, a dramatic reconstruction of the siege, is highly charged with the poet's patriotic and national spirit and racial pride which are so explicitly and vividly brought out through opposition between 'dark faces' and 'wholesome white faces'; ten thousand Indian Soldiers and a handful (of British) and the proud declaration of the strength of 'the race to command'.

      In the year of Mutiny, prior to this poem, Tennyson had written a short poem celebrating the deeds of one of the British heroes df the defence of Lucknow, Henry Havelock. The poem starts with the line 'Bold Havelock march'd' and ends with the following lines:

Bold Havelack died,
Tender and great and good,
And every man in Britain
Says 'I am of Havelock's blood!'

      In The Defence of Lucknow an incident that is famous in the annals of the Indian Mutiny, there are passages full of vigour and animation but on the whole too much vehemence and tumultuous activity; the poet endeavours to startle and strike the imagination by glowing pictures of the realities of a siege; he accumulates authentic details, he tries to give us the scenes and events with the roar of battle, the terror and the misery, the furious assaults and the desperate defence, as on the stage of a theatre:-

"Then on another wild morning another wild earthquake out-tore Clean from our lines of defence ten or twelve good paces or more. Rifleman, high on the roof, hidden there from the light of the sun - One has leapt up o the breach, crying out: "Follow me, follow me!' Mark him-he falls! then another, and him too, and down goes be. Had they been bold enough then, who can tell but the traitors had won ? Boardings and rafters and doors - an embrasure ! make way for the gun! Now double-charge it with grape ! It is charged and we fire, and they run."

      Here is abundance of fiery animation but also too many descriptive particulars; and as the whole poem is composed in this manner, it resembles a vivid narration of events in pictorial prose. Such work hardly lies within the compass of the poetic artist, whose business it is to simplify and concentrate the general impression; and though the Defence of Lucknow is full of energy and ardour, one must pass upon it the criticism that the canvas is overcrowded and the verse too hurried and vehement for the ballad, or for the lyric of heroism, which is best when it gives a single tragic situation in clear outline.

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