Skyfall: M and Ulysses part 2

My post Skyfall: M and “Ulysses” got me thinking about what I know by heart. Long ago some English teacher or other required me to commit the whole of that long dramatic monologue, “Ulysses” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, the 19th century poet, to memory. It is 70 lines long and free verse and that much more difficult because there are no rhyming clues.

It begins “It little profits that an idle king/By this still hearth, among these barren crags/ Match’d with an aged wife/ Should mete and dole/ Unequal laws unto a savage race.” Ulysses is standing in the port of his island kingdom, Ithaca, beside his ship or even on its prow, and addressing his crew and his subjects. Presumably his “aged” wife is there, Penelope, who faithfully waited for him all those years while he was fighting in Troy and taking his own sweet time getting home. Thinking he had perished, suitors beset her in order to gain her kingdom. She devised a scheme to put them off, saying she would choose just as soon as she finished weaving her tapestry: every night, she tore out what she had woven that day. Now Ulysses regards her merely as an aged wife.

Presumably his son, Telemachus is also there. Ulysses says of him “most blameless is he”, suited to the task of mete-ing and dole-ing apparently and subduing the savage race “thro soft decrees”. Ulysses does concede that Telemachus is “well-loved of me”. Maybe, but not all that well respected. Still “He works his work, I mine.” but make no mistake, only one is glorious.

Mainly, however, Ulysses is talking to his mariners, those poor sods who are going to row him, assisted now and then, by fortunate winds and scant sails. “Push off, and sitting well in order smite/ The sounding furrows”, Ulysses cries. “For my purpose holds/ To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths/ Of all the western stars until I die.” “It may be that the gulfs will wash us down,” he suggests, for he is going to take them out past what we call Gibraltar into the Atlantic Ocean, terra incognita so far as the ancient Greeks were concerned. I am ill-equipped, probably, being an aged woman, to understand how his charisma made his men eager to follow him still.

Nevertheless, I can well understand the lines with which he closes. I took them to my heart as a teenager, but they are even more significant now that I can empathize with the ageing hero:
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.

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Skyfall: M and Ulysses

Of course I saw Skyfall, the latest James Bond movie, as soon as I could, just as I had the other 22. So far as you no doubt know, it has been a 50 year project. The one that stands out in my memory is Thunderball and that has more to do with the way I got there than the movie itself. We set out in our new racing green 1965 MGB with the top down on a pleasant evening. We were cruising along the freeway, happily anticipating the film. As we drove under an overpass, the driver of the semi next to us pulled on his air horn, elevating us out of our seats -no seat belts back then- and setting our hearts racing. I could see him laughing madly as he passed us. Thunderball could only be an anti-climax.

Skyfall I liked much better than Quantum of Solace although  I’ve never met a Bond movie that I didn’t like. As the usher assured me, Skyfall is old-fashioned Bond.

The movie begins with Bond’s death and when that proves, unsurprisingly, greatly exaggerated, we see a battered, unshaven Bond wearing jeans and drinking —- beer. Back in harness, he is expected to re-qualify as an agent and is assured by one and all that he is past it, that, in fact, the concept of agents going out into the field is itself passé. Computer nerds can do all that work now without getting out of their pyjamas.

M, Bond’s boss, played by Judy Dench, is of course, even older and appears to have lost control of MI 6. Eventually, she is called before a parliamentary committee to face the music. In answering the badgering chair of the committee, she quotes from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses”.

The poet imagines the great adventurer Ulysses, the ancient Greek commander who defeated Troy by using a wooden horse. In the poem, Ulysses old and bored with his home island of Ithaca, exhorts his men to join him on one last great adventure from which they will not return. The poem ends with the lines which M quotes:
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.