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.