Skyfall continued the comeback for the James Bond franchise. It has provided a more surprising renaissance for Alfred, Lord Tennyson. When M battles for her job in front of an acid-tongued parliamentary committee, her reputation in tatters and her country under attack from the cyber-terrorist Silva, what does she reach for? Bond’s trusty Beretta 418? One of Q’s exploding pens? No. She unleashes a far more potent weapon: the immortal rhetoric of Tennyson’s “Ulysses”.
Dame Judi Dench’s dry, dulcet tones are ideal for Ulysses’ steely promise: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Such passion and defiance fly in the face of our politicians’ mealy-mouthed platitudes and speak directly to the public’s hunger for the heroic. The poem fills a massive void. In a striking passage from his book Genius, the American critic Harold Bloom writes: “Standing in Washington Square Park on September 11, 2001, unbelievingly watching the towers crumble, the final lines of Tennyson’s dramatic monologue ‘Ulysses’ came unsummoned.”
It’s fantastic to see Tennyson have the last laugh on all the dreary post-structuralist academics, tone-deaf to his incantatory power, who have long dismissed him as a relic of a bygone age — a sleeping kraken of rhymey-chimey misogyny and imperialism.
But why did Skyfall’s director Sam Mendes and screenwriter John Logan need to go back to the 19th century for words to stir the blood? In search of an answer, one could create a series of YouTube clips replacing Tennyson’s soaring language with the efforts of today’s poetic luminaries. Imagine Judi Dench intoning, ‘‘Crepitant oak forest where the boar furrowed black mould, his snout intimate with worms and leaves”, from Sir Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns. Or perhaps, “The first bus, empty, carries its cargo of light/From the depot”, from Simon Armitage’s “Birthday”. Ransack the pages of Craig Raine or Paul Muldoon. Flick through Sir Andrew Motion (if you really must). There is nothing in any of their work that would light up the silver screen.
Filmmakers who want to appeal to the masses are forced to turn to the very canon of great literature that academics deplore as elitist. In Four Weddings and a Funeral, it was W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” (Stop all the clocks) that had the audience in tears. Even in a film as dumbed-down as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, our hero blithely quotes T.S. Eliot and Milton. Indeed, Eliot’s poetry pops up in a dizzying range of popular films, from Logan’s Run to Apocalypse Now. What million-dollar motion picture would benefit from a line or two from smirky Carol Ann Duffy? Skyfall’s global success tells us that the movies are still big. It’s the poems that got small.