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Sunday, 28 October 2012

Not Shaken But Stirred By Elegiac Verse

There are no lounge lizards in Skyfall. Just a couple of  Komodo dragons to make it fun.

Then there‘s the super-slithery villain, the thrilling, stunt-filled  opening chase, a peek at some favourite gadgets – and even a little Gothic horror to keep young audiences entertained.

Best of all, Sam Mendes’s film is not just fancy camera work and laugh out-loud one-liners. Its script humanises Ian Fleming’s original characters, with Judi Dench‘s ‘M’ reciting Tennyson and later, Daniel Craig’s Bond bending nobly to kiss her brow.

Enough to make the angels weep? Maybe not. Sufficient for an Oscar sweep? Perhaps.

But as I’m only a humble blogger, my tiny contribution to the debate will be to examine the poem and to discover why it played a pivotal, if eccentric role in this extraordinary film.

As Skyfall is much possessed by shadows, I was surprised the lines come neither from the poet’s The Lady of Shallot  nor In Memoriam.  In fact they are the closing lines of Ulysses

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

As Ulysses is not a poem with which I was previously familiar, I’m using a summary and interpretation from Spark Notes(  - to show how well the verse captures the spirit of Craig’s Bond and how he may be viewed as a ‘Ulysses ‘of our times:

“In the final stanza, Ulysses addresses the mariners with whom he has worked, travelled, and weathered life’s storms over many years. He declares that although he and they are old, they still have the potential to do something noble and honourable before “the long day wanes.” He encourages them to make use of their old age because “ ’tis not too late to seek a newer world.” He declares that his goal is to sail onward “beyond the sunset” until his death. Perhaps, he suggests, they may even reach the “Happy Isles,” or the paradise of perpetual summer described in Greek mythology where great heroes like the warrior Achilles were believed to have been taken after their deaths. Although Ulysses and his mariners are not as strong as they were in youth, they are “strong in will” and are sustained by their resolve to push onward relentlessly: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”


Lord.Tennyson“In this poem, written in 1833 and revised for publication in 1842, Tennyson reworks the figure of Ulysses by drawing on the ancient hero of Homer’s Odyssey (“Ulysses” is the Roman form of the Greek “Odysseus”) and the medieval hero of Dante’s Inferno

“However, this poem also concerns the poet’s own personal journey, for it was composed in the first few weeks after Tennyson learned of the death of his dear college friend Arthur Henry Hallam in 1833. Like In Memoriam then, this poem is also an elegy for a deeply cherished friend. Ulysses, who symbolises the grieving poet, proclaims his resolution to push onward in spite of the awareness that “death closes all”. As Tennyson himself stated, the poem expresses his own “need of going forward and braving the struggle of life” after the loss of his beloved Hallam.

“The poem’s final line, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,” came to serve as a motto for the poet’s Victorian contemporaries: the poem’s hero longs to flee the tedium of daily life “among these barren crags” and to enter a mythical dimension “beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western stars”; as such, he was a model of individual self-assertion and the Romantic rebellion against bourgeois conformity. Thus for Tennyson’s immediate audience, the figure of Ulysses held not only mythological meaning, but stood as an important contemporary cultural icon as well.”

So like it or not, as the James Bond franchise marks its 50th anniversary perhaps it should be viewed, not just as hearty, light entertainment but  as an impressive and important product of our time. No wonder the screening at the Globus Max Cinema near Haifa was packed with young people.

Even in its Golden anniversary year, ‘James Bond’ as a concept is viewed as ‘hip and happening’.  Perhaps Skyfall will also mark a resurgence of interest in the works of Alfred Lord Tennyson, British Poet Laureate from 1850 until his death in 1892.



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