Gregory Tate

James Bond and Alfred Tennyson seem like an odd pairing. In their own ways, though, they’re both British institutions, old-fashioned and perhaps outdated. They might be loved or tolerated for their place in cultural history, but, arguably, they’re not immediately relevant to twenty-first-century concerns.

This issue is directly addressed in the latest 007 film, Skyfall, in which Ian Fleming’s spy and the Victorian poet laureate are brought together. As Bond (Daniel Craig) runs through the streets of London to stop an assassin gunning for M (Judi Dench), the under-pressure head of MI6 is fighting for her job in front of a parliamentary committee, and she concludes her speech of self-justification with a defiant quotation from Tennyson’s dramatic monologue ‘Ulysses’:

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.

Although the sonorous determination of these lines has been admired by politicians since the poem was first published in 1842, there is an irony to their use here. Unlike M, Tennyson’s Ulysses is trying to resign his post: he yearns to escape his responsibilities as king of Ithaca and embark on one last voyage with his mariners. Although he insists that he remains ‘strong in will’, he also acknowledges that he’s no longer fit for office.

These lines from ‘Ulysses’ seem to have been everywhere in 2012. As well as their Bond cameo, they were inscribed on a wall in the athletes’ village at the London Olympic Games, and the last line in particular became a sort of unofficial Olympic motto. Quoted again and again over the course of the summer, Tennyson’s words were bound up with ideas of fortitude, endeavour, and patriotic pride. Skyfall deploys them to similar effect, but the quotation also crystallises a sense of doubt and melancholy that pervades the film.

For much of Skyfall, Bond and MI6 are presented as dinosaurs struggling to keep up with the modern world. Under attack from a cyberterrorist, they are forced to retreat into the subterranean tunnels of Winston Churchill’s World War II cabinet rooms. The film persistently reiterates the possibility that Bond and the intelligence service might be past their best: at one point the spy stares intently at J. M. W. Turner’s painting The Fighting Temeraire, depicting a once-famous warship as it is towed away to be broken up.

Skyfall is, on one level, a film about the loss of British power: the plot hinges on an incident which took place during the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese control, and the film’s villain (foreign, of course), played by Javier Bardem, delights in telling Bond that the days of British power and imperial glory are long gone. The lines from ‘Ulysses’ perfectly encapsulate this concern. Like Ulysses, Skyfall wants to have it both ways: it recognises that Britain has been ‘made weak by time and fate’, but it also clings nostalgically to a myth of fortitude and heroism. As M intones the words ‘and not to yield’, Bond arrives to save the day. 007, of course, will never yield. This is a big part of the character’s appeal, but it’s also one of the reasons why these films often seem reactionary and simplistic. In every film, no matter how outdated Bond is, he will strive, and seek, and find: Britain’s enemies will be defeated, and the plot will be resolved.

Tennyson’s Ulysses, however, never reaches the end of his story. Despite his self-proclaimed strength of will, at the close of his monologue he remains, as the Victorian critic Goldwin Smith noted, ‘a listless and melancholy figure on the shore’. He is stuck in a sort of limbo, looking back on the fading glories of the past and facing an uncertain future. This is a peculiarly Victorian state of mind, but, according to Skyfall, it might also be characteristic of twenty-first-century Britain.

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In March 2011 the final line of Alfred Tennyson’s poem ‘Ulysses’ – ‘To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield’ – was selected as the inscription for a wall in the athlete’s village at the 2012 London Olympic Games. The line, it was hoped, would motivate athletes to strive for success in their events, and would continue to inspire the residents of east London once the village was converted into housing after the games. The adoption of the line as a sort of Olympic epigraph, and its subsequent quotation in speeches by David Cameron and editorials in The Times, testified to the enduring popularity and cultural resonance of Tennyson’s dramatic monologue (first published in 1842), but there was a danger that the adoption of the line as a monumental pronouncement of optimism, isolated from its context within the poem as a whole, might threaten to rob Tennyson’s poetry of its nuance. This danger was lessened, however, by the subsequent decision to lengthen the inscription to incorporate the final three-and-a-half lines of Ulysses’ monologue:

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.

In this form the inscription restores the ambivalent tone of Tennyson’s poem: it appeals to a collective and communal identity founded on equality and heroism, but at the same its acknowledgement of the ravages of ‘time and fate’ casts doubt on its effectiveness as an inspirational motto. The closing lines of ‘Ulysses’ have been widely quoted (and misquoted) throughout the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries, and while the history of their reception and appropriation reveals a persistent desire to enlist Ulysses’ speech as a rousing affirmation of undimmed fortitude, it also demonstrates that these lines can be read as an admission of defeat as much as an assertion of will. The tension between these two readings is especially evident in the last two lines of the poem, which raise a series of interpretative questions. Where should the expressive emphasis be placed in the penultimate line: on the weary opening of ‘made weak’, the pivotal self-checking qualification of ‘but’, or the rallying cry of ‘strong in will’? And, perhaps most crucially, how can the concluding, and possibly negative, metrical stresses on ‘not’ and ‘yield’ in the final line be reconciled with the stirring infinitives that precede them?

The particular ambiguity of this final line is highlighted by a poignant coincidence of dates in 2012. As well as taking in the Olympics, this year marks the centenary of the death of Robert Falcon Scott and his team inAntarctica. Before the survivors of Scott’s expedition left Antarctica in January 1913, they erected a memorial cross to Scott; inscribed on the cross were the names of the dead and the final line of ‘Ulysses’. Although testifying to the ambition and endurance of the explorers, this epitaph is far from an unambiguous assertion of optimism and aspiration. Instead, it draws attention to the underlying scepticism of Tennyson’s line, its awareness that, however strong the will, heroic ambition might result in failure and futility. In this context, Tennyson’s words sound similar to Scott’s famous statement in his final journal entry, dated 29 March 1912: ‘We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far’. Both Scott and Ulysses acknowledge that seeking and finding might not guarantee success or triumph, and that, in the end, striving against insurmountable odds might be the same thing as yielding to them.

Despite the inherent ambiguity of Ulysses’ words, the sonorous and eloquent blank verse of his monologue has, perhaps unsurprisingly, proved consistently popular with politicians. The Victorian Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel admired the poem, and it was also a favourite with US President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert. In 1980 their younger brother, Senator Edward Kennedy, closed his speech at the Democratic national convention, in which he announced his withdrawal from the race for the Democratic nomination for the presidency, by quoting the final lines of ‘Ulysses’. But he missed out the phrase ‘made weak by time and fate’, editing Tennyson’s lines and presenting them as an unambiguous call to unceasing struggle in the face of adversity. Other quotations by American politicians have been less edifying: in 2009 the corrupt Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, impeached for illegally trying to sell the vacant senate seat of newly-elected President Barack Obama, read the lines during a press conference at which he announced his intention to fight the charges (unsuccessfully, as it turned out).

The readiness of politicians to appropriate Tennyson’s lines, often for self-serving ends, invites a sceptical reassessment of the inspirational power of Ulysses’ words: however affirmative and persuasive the poem’s final lines might be, they are also full of doubt and equivocation. As Tennyson himself suggested, confidence and doubt are equal elements of his poem’s meaning: he said that it ‘was written under the sense of loss and that all had gone by, but that still life must be fought out to the end’. The struggle between the sense of loss and the desire to fight life out to the end remains unresolved at the end of the poem. The resulting tension between striving and surrender is not straightforwardly in keeping with the aspiration, expressed in the Olympic motto, to be ‘faster, higher, stronger’, but it is the source of much of this poem’s intellectual and emotional power.

Read Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ in full here:

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Events have been taking place throughout 2012 to mark the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens. Dickens is an iconic figure in British culture and English literature, and over the course of the year so far the celebrations of his bicentenary have often seemed to merge, along with the Diamond Jubilee and the build-up to the London Olympics, into a larger expression of patriotic pride.

The University of Surrey wanted to do something to mark the Dickens bicentenary, and to consider precisely why this Victorian writer occupies such a prominent place in contemporary culture, within but also beyond Britain. The result was an international conference on Dickens and the Visual Imagination organised by Surrey’s School of English and Languages on 9 and 10 July 2012. Co-hosted by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art (the first day took place at the University of Surrey campus in Guildford and the second day at the Paul Mellon Centre in Bloomsbury), the conference studied the ways in which the uniquely visual qualities of Dickens’s writing affect his reputation and the reception of his work, both in the Victorian era and today. The conference welcomed Dickens experts and enthusiasts from around the world, including scholars from France, Switzerland, the USA, Australia, and India. It also brought together academics from a range of disciplines, including English Literature, Art History, and Law, to present a kaleidoscope of different perspectives on the theme of Dickens and the visual. The genuinely interdisciplinary nature of the conference affirmed the School of English and Language’s commitment to exploring links between English Literature and other art forms and ways of thinking.

A number of papers focused on Dickens’s representations of visual phenomena and on visual appropriations of Dickens in his own time: there were talks on theatrical adaptations of Dickens; on his views about painting and portraiture; on his depictions of the Thames and the London fog; and on the illustrations which invariably accompanied his writing. Other speakers focused on later visual responses to Dickens’s work, including one paper on graphic novel adaptations of his books. Keynote addresses were given by Professor Andrew Sanders (on Dickens’s use of interiors), Professor Sambudha Sen (on the specifically urban quality of the ‘Dickensian aesthetic’), Professor Lynda Nead (on David Lean’s 1946 film adaptation of Great Expectations), and Professor Kate Flint (on Victorian pavement art).

As well as a diverse and thought-provoking range of papers, the conference also included a visit to the Watts Gallery’s Dickens and the Artists exhibition, which showcases a number of works of art that draw on and respond to Dickens’s own visual and verbal artistry. The conference as a whole emphasised the importance of seeing Dickens as an international and visual writer as well as an English literary icon.

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On Monday 9 and Tuesday 10 July, the School of English and Languages at the University of Surrey will co-host a conference on Dickens and the Visual Imagination, in association with Watts Gallery and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. The first day of the conference will take place at the University of Surrey’s campus in Guildford and will conclude with a wine reception and viewing of the Dickens and the Artists exhibition at Watts Gallery, while the second day will be hosted at the Paul Mellon Centre in central London.

2012 marks the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’s birth, and we’re excited to be contributing to the celebrations by hosting an event that explores such a unique and vital aspect of Dickens’s work and cultural legacy. Dickens is renowned for the richness of his visual imagination, and his publications encouraged readers to interpret his words with and through their accompanying illustrations. Not only was Dickens deeply engaged with ideas of the visual in his writing, but his work also provoked responses from artists across multiple disciplines within the Victorian period and beyond. We’ve put together a thought-provoking and stimulating programme of papers which showcases the scope of current research into Dickens and the visual, taking in subjects as diverse as architecture, Victorian street art, and twenty-first-century graphic novels.

Dickens and the Visual Imagination is an interdisciplinary and international event, bringing together scholars from a range of subjects, including English literature, art history, and law, and welcoming academics from universities in Australia, France, India, New Zealand, Switzerland, and the USA. The conference will feature keynote addresses from Professor Andrew Sanders (University of Durham), Professor Sambudha Sen (University of Delhi), Professor Lynda Nead (Birkbeck, University of London), and Professor Kate Flint (University of Southern California).

The Surrey English blog will be posting during and after the conference. In the meantime, if you would like additional information about the event, please email [email protected]

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