Tennyson Delivers Skyfall’s British Bulldog Moment

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

In her 7th and final role playing “M” in Skyfall – the latest in a series of 23 James Bond movies produced over the past 50 years – Dame Judi Dench appears before Britain’s Intelligence and Security Committee to defend her record as head of MI6 – the government agency which supplies Her Majesty’s Government with foreign intelligence.

Under pressure to explain breaches in MI6’s internal security, the 007 matriarch waxes poetic, quoting a few lines from one of her late husband’s favorite poems:

“…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.”

Students of the late Professor Arthur R. Reil, Jr.’s English Lit course at Fairfield University – having memorized all 70 lines of that particular poem (as well as several odes and sonnets) – recognized Dench’s reading immediately as Ulysses, written by Lord Alfred Tennyson in 1833.

Some Cliff Notes for Biology majors: Ulysses is the ancient warrior hero of Homer’s Odyssey. British poet Tennyson envisions Ulysses speaking this narrative after having returned from the Trojan War to Ithaca, the kingdom he rules. Before he leaves Ithaca to embark on his final voyage, Ulysses describes his boredom with domestic life and fear of old age, longing for a return to his lifelong quest for adventure and knowledge.

Lord Tennyson was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom during much of Queen Victoria’s reign and remains one of Great Britain’s most popular poets. But when Tennyson wrote Ulysses, he was living in cramped quarters with his mother and nine of his ten siblings, with little income and in failing health. The poem was written shortly after, and influenced by the death of his close friend, the poet Arthur Henry Hallam (1811–1833), who was engaged to Tennyson’s sister Emily. The parallels between the plight of Ulysses and Tennyson’s personal circumstances continue to be the focus of countless, thoroughly boring Ph.D. dissertations.

Although it has been the subject of sniping since the film’s release, the Skyfall screenwriters’ rationale to interrupt their action movie with a brief poetry reading was very clear, and in my view, displayed noteworthy cinematic craftsmanship by providing the “British Bulldog Moment” that’s an essential element in every James Bond installment.  (For movie-goers who miss the point of the poem, Skyfall’s screenwriters provide a Union-Jacketed, Royal Doulton ceramic bulldog that “M” bequeaths to 007.)

What’s far less clear – some 40 years after Professor Reil forced me to memorize Ulysses – is how I can still remember and recite verbatim at least the first 10 lines of that epic poem (and up to 15 lines, after downing 3 Guinness stouts)…but I can never remember a new name or phone number for more than 30 seconds unless I write it down.

8 Comments

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8 responses to “Tennyson Delivers Skyfall’s British Bulldog Moment

  1. Ab

    Lovely article. And tell’s us something about the workings of your brain too. Thank you.

    Tremendous shame that it spoils a key aspect of the film’s story, though. It could so easily have been written without this flaw.

  2. jim frederickson

    Well done and well spoken. Prof. Reil must have inspired you to have you memorize all 70 lines. (Other than sacking you).

    At least it might reward you a stout for reciting. But you are the better for it.

    Cheers!

  3. Simon

    Most commentators seem to believe the introduction of the china Bulldog as symbolism established by the film director to show the British bulldog spirit. This could not be further from the truth. The union jack draped bulldog “Jack” does exist in the office of the real chief of MI6 since the 1950s and that tradition continue to the present day.

    • Simon,
      This is very interesting, and thank you for pointing it out. I’d be interested to know how you came to learn about the existence of the real bulldog jack. It might be argued that, regardless of whether the china bulldog is an actual MI6 tradition or a simply convention cooked up by filmmakers, that the tenacity of the bulldog does stand as a symbol of British spirit. In that respect, the china bulldog does serve as a technique in the movie that was used to make that point. Cheers. Gordon

  4. Richard McNally

    You cannot imagine how much I enjoyed this article. I too was a student of Arthur Riel’s at Fairfield, class of 1983. Like many others I memorized Ulysses as well as The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock and was beguiled by that particular exercise and went on to memorize well over 50 more poems and speeches over the years. Alas names, dates, new acquaintances, and other quotidian details still confound my memory, but I can pull Ulysses out on demand, as I did for David Whyte in Ireland. I was searching for a good recital of Ulysses when I happened on your article, and even now shed a tear for the memory of Professor Riel. Thanks so much for this.

    • Richard,
      Thanks for your kind note. At the time, I could not imagine the practical value in memorizing poetry, and considered it torture. But over the years, I’ve discovered what Professor Riel knew all along: that memorization enables you to better understand and internalize the written word. I believe that something physical (and perhaps metaphysical) occurs through memorization. I was Class of 72, and I don’t know how many years he taught after that. He was a humble, soft-spoken individual, but I remember him fondly, and better than nearly all the other teachers at Fairfield.

      • Richard McNally

        I can honestly say he had as much impact on me as any teacher I had there despite the fact I was premed and he taught a basic english course – I finally learned grammar among other things! The Elements of Style was our bible.

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