Skyfall: Tennyson and James Bond

Tennyson is a very well quoted poet, even recited by Dame Judi Dench as ‘M’ towards the end of the 007 film Skyfall from his poem Ulysses.

Tennyson is a very well quoted poet, but to the modern audience, he is probably most memorably recited by Dame Judi Dench as ‘M’ towards the end of Skyfall from the poem 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.’

It was the resemblance (although maybe it’s all in my mind) between the two houses, Farringford and Skyfall, that brought this quote to mind.

However these are not the only links between Tennyson and James Bond. Delving into Bond’s family’s past in Skyfall film watchers learn about his problematic relationship with his father: a difficulty Tennyson shared, George Tennyson is recounted as being both alcoholic and violent to the point where Tennyson’s mother, Elizabeth, was forced to leave the Rectory, taking the children with her.

Bond also shares a dislike for his renown similar to that of Tennyson, and the opening of Skyfall sees Bond hiding abroad, using the excuse of his presumed death to avoid returning to London. Tennyson similarly hoped to use the seclusion of Farringford, which was said to have been so lonely that many of the maids left the Tennyson’s service when they were asked to move there, to avoid the growing pressure that his fame put him under in London. Tennyson was found to have often escaped his guests and well-wishers at Farringford by running down the spiral staircase from the library to the conservatory and out onto the downs.

Tennyson and Bond are each British icons in their different ways, but the quote from Ulysses makes their resemblances more uncanny than ever.  The quote in Skyfall has been interpreted as representing that old heroics are better than modern technology, or that tradition is of as much worth as innovation; although this reading of the use of the poem is somewhat undermined by the fact that it is concerned with Ulysses a.k.a. Odysseus, a figure famous for his innovation and inventiveness.

Nevertheless, respect for tradition and old heroics is a corner stone for Tennyson’s poetry, as much as it is for the presentation of Bond in Skyfall, and the ending of Skyfall, with the death of ‘M’ is very much reminiscent of another of Tennyson’s poem The Passing of Arthur at the end of The Idylls of the King. This poem similarly mourns for a loss of greatness in Britain’s present in comparison to its past.

‘Thereat once more he moved about, and clomb
Even to the highest he could climb, and saw,
Straining his eyes beneath an arch of hand,
Or thought he saw, the speck that bare the King,
Down that long water opening on the deep
Somewhere far off, pass on and on, and go
From less to less and vanish into light.
And the new sun rose bringing the new year.’

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