Elegy in Wordsworth, Turner, and James Bond

As the scene opens, a brief shot catches a spy momentarily transfixed by a painting. That spy is James Bond, and that painting is Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838. Soon the as-yet-unidentified Q sits down to offer his barbed reading, and it hits close to home. Stung, Bond refuses to interpret the work of high Romantic elegy that had held his attention moments before—it’s just “a bloody big ship.” This denial is a concession: Bond tacitly admits the painting depicts what Q calls “the inevitability of time.”

Skyfall threatens Bond less with a supervillain (though of course there is one) than with this inevitability of time. Time has two arcs that the film conflates: on one hand is the arc of aging and mortality that shapes human life, and on the other is the movement of history. Q’s vision of history raises technological development to a metaphysical principle indistinguishable from time itself. Technological development and historical progress are synonymous. Their corollary, obsolescence, is as inevitable as aging and death. In Q’s world of virtualized warfare, the field agent’s role is reduced to a passive function that elides both agency and the taking of life. What is left is a mechanism: “every now and then a trigger has to be pulled.”

The Bond franchise trades in the fantasy of individual and imperial sovereignty, of the agent in every sense, acting alone on behalf of the nation. Skyfall is an elegy for the loss of this fantasy. Bond remains a dutiful subject of empire in a post-subjective world long after the fall of Pax Britannica. Threatened with obsolescence, he refuses to go to scrap. The psychological character of this fantasy is foregrounded as the narrative travels into Bond’s own past: the climactic shootout is accessorized by “traditional” weaponry (namely the hunting shotgun), and unfolds at Bond’s family estate and childhood home in the Scottish highlands. Aptly, Bond concludes the episode by detonating the estate and relinquishing the fantasy—“I never liked the place anyway.” As Freud noted, the mourning process might be said to conclude only when we have killed the dead. Skyfall affirms historical inevitability precisely by mourning it. This is the movement anticipated by Turner’s painting.


The Fighting Temeraire has long been recognized as perhaps Britain’s most important piece of nationalist art, and was recently voted the “Greatest Painting in Britain.” Here, Turner’s interest in diffuse, hazy seascapes converges with the diffuse, hazy nature of memory. Night overtakes day as steam supplants sail, a metonymy of the upheavals of industrialization. Equally at stake is Britain’s imperial legacy, as the Temeraire had fought in the Battle of Trafalgar, Admiral Nelson’s decisive victory over the French and Spanish fleets. This moment of imperial glory cost Britain not a single ship, but it did claim the life of Nelson, who won a spell of immortality atop a pillar in the center of Dublin—a fitting site for a monument to the ravages of imperial power—until it was even more fittingly blasted by republicans in 1966.


Turner’s painting broadcasts a paradigmatically modern attitude that shadows Q’s view of history as inexorable progress: a wistful discontent with modernity fueled by the same steam power it decries. Nelson’s victory was in a sense the very cause of the world that The Fighting Temeraire seems to lament, as it paved the way to crises and ennui of Victorian empire. The painting’s most telling review came from the pen of Thackeray. Thackeray’s reading of—and into—Turner’s canvas captures the paradoxes of elegy, balanced in exquisite suspension. His description is revealing:

The old Téméraire is dragged to her last home by a little, spiteful, diabolical steamer. A mighty red sun, amidst a host of flaring clouds, sinks to rest on one side of the picture, and illumines a river that seems interminable, and a countless navy that fades away into such a wonderful distance as never was painted before. The little demon of a steamer is belching out a volume (why do I say a volume? not a hundred volumes could express it) of foul, lurid, red-hot, malignant smoke, paddling furiously, and lashing up the water round about it; while behind it (a cold grey moon looking down on it), slow, sad, and majestic, follows the brave old ship, with death, as it were, written on her.


I don’t recognize the painting Thackeray describes—certainly not that “foul, lurid, red-hot, malignant smoke.” I don’t know that Turner saw it that way either; William S. Rodner has argued that Turner was drawn to paint steamers in part because he simply wanted to experiment with black (60). In fact Thackeray knows he’s overinvested, and is quickly embarrassed “to grow so politically enthusiastic.” But he just as quickly pivots to a defense of his reaction: “[The great artist] makes you see and think of a great deal more than the objects before you.” What Thackeray sees, thinks, and hears in Turner’s painting is above all “a magnificent national ode.” He hears the painting because it plays back the passage of a specific national triumph and an entire technological regime, all encoded in a mere “four-foot canvas, representing a ship, a steamer, a river, and a sunset.” Elegy is the structure of feeling that corresponds to national belonging: to be a British subject is to feel the layers of triumph and loss synthesized in Turner’s painting.

This model of elegy feels to me nearly synonymous with nationalism itself. But elegy’s noble, public vocation was a fairly recent phenomenon. Over the course of the eighteenth century, elegy transformed from a narrowly-conceived poetic genre to a generalized orientation inseparable from the species of modernity we’ve come to call Romantic. In 1712, Joseph Trapp could take elegy’s diminutive profile for granted: “we don’t pretend that Epigram, Elegy, Song and the like, conduce much to the Improvement of Virtue. It is enough, if these Writings keep within the Bounds of Chastity, and give no Offense in Good-manners” (25). Needless to say, it’s hard to imagine defenders of the state conducting rivalrous exchange over this vision of elegy. Trapp’s latter caution on “Chastity” was particularly urgent, since elegy’s scope had expanded from extolling the dead to lusting after absent lovers. What “Elegy” should do is return to “her” original stylings—“smooth, humble, and unaffected; nor is she abject in her Humility, but becoming, elegant, and attractive” (169). Unsurprisingly, feminine elegy sits near the bottom of Trapp’s generic hierarchy, while the work of inculcating collective belonging and virtue falls to the masculine, public genres of epic and tragedy. Over the ensuing century, elegy’s purview grew from an erotic indulgence into a key component of the maintenance of domestic and national subjectivity, as a lineage of thought from Adam Smith to Burke and Wordsworth came to define community as an ongoing relationship to the dead. This premise underlies the readings of Turner by Thackeray and Skyfall.

Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments disciplines the model of sympathy as contagion developed by David Hume and practiced throughout the literature of sensibility. Smith reconceives sympathy as an intentional, imaginative reconstruction of the other’s situation in the self, modulated at all stages by the faculty of judgment. Crucially, Smith takes our sympathy for the dead as his theory’s cornerstone. The dead serve as the gold standard in Smith’s model of the economy of feeling, both generating and restraining the proliferation of sympathy:

And from thence arises one of the most important principles in human nature, the dread of death, the great poison to the happiness, but the great restraint upon the injustice of mankind, which, while it afflicts and mortifies the individual, guards and protects the society. (71)

Sympathy for the dead is no longer the private concern of sweet, feminine elegy. Remembering one’s “rude forefathers” (as in Gray’s famous churchyard elegy) has become an eminently social concern, crucial to the maintenance of public morality. From a narrowly-defined genre, elegy has diffused into an orientation and a practice continuous with sociability—in Bearing the Dead: The British Culture of Mourning from the Enlightenment to Victoria, Esther Schor calls this new formation “Elegia.”

Edmund Burke raises Smith’s theoretical premise of sympathy for the dead to a matter of dire political urgency. For Burke, famously, society itself is coterminous with the remembering of the dead:

[Society] is to be looked on with reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature…. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primaeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all the physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place.

The “great primaeval contract of eternal society” remakes society on an elegiac model, restrained by its constant registration of what it has lost, now held “inviolable.” On this point, Mary Wollstonecraft would accuse Burke of fetishizing “gothic notions of beauty” and “Gothic drapery.” In his unpublished “Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff” (1793) Wordsworth went further, finding something distinctly necrophilic in Burke’s reverence for the constitution as emblem of the dead: his view would have Britain “bound to cherish a corse at the bosom, when reason might call aloud that it should be entombed” (1:67).

What Burke found and lost in the French Revolution is this vision of society-as-elegy, severing the “inviolable oath” that bonds the dead to the living. Rightly so, responded Thomas Paine, since “[i]t is the living, and not the dead, that are to be accommodated.” Burke was proposing “the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies”—that is, “the vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave” (63-4). What strikes me about Burke’s account is its doubly elegiac nature. Burke declares that society was constituted through elegy, but is no longer. Burke is reconstructing—or better, imagining—as a theoretical object what no longer exists. What he decries is not the threat of impending change, but rather an apocalyptic transformation of feeling that has already happened. The French Revolution is only the symptom of a profound affective reorganization.

The age of chivalry is gone. – That of sophisters, oeconomists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. (170)

In this sense, the rhetoric of Burke’s Reflections doesn’t so much attack an ongoing French Revolution as mourn what is already lost. And what is lost is a way of life, a socio-sexual order, of which the Revolution is only the most flagrant and catastrophic sign. This was central to Wollstonecraft’s rejoinder: Burke was experiencing a kind of theatrical pleasure in his own dramatic “reflections” upon loss. This argument marks a profound shift in the fate of Elegia, which now finds itself—not tragedy, not epic—leading the counterrevolution. But given its dependence on the displaced temporality of what is always-already lost, Elegia could only lead the counterrevolution by having already lost the fight.

Wordsworth’s poetics are saturated with Elegia. Quick: think of a Wordsworth poem that doesn’t partake. (In this context, it’s interesting to note that the attacks on “curiously elaborate” poetic diction in the preface to Lyrical Ballads take for their object Gray’s “Sonnet on the Death of Mr. Richard West”—the poem responsible for the sonnet boom of the late eighteenth century. From this angle, it looks like Wordsworth’s preface is aimed at reforming elegy no less than reforming poetic diction, with equally public and political aims.) Wordsworthian elegy is intimately bound up with the rhetoric of internalization—perhaps most forcefully in “Tintern Abbey” and the Intimations Ode, where the object of elegy is the self. Yet in the three “Essays upon Epitaphs” and in The Excursion, the elegiac orientation takes on a recognizably Burkean function, cementing social bonds. Wordsworth’s Burkean entail rests upon the sense that relationships between living persons must be generated through the collective inheritance of the dead. For Wordsworth, as Kurt Fosso writes, “it is not community that leads to a connection to the dead so much as it is the dead, and more specifically the relationship of the living to them, that leads to community” (3). Following Burke (and against Smith), Wordsworth thinks sympathy for the dead cannot be taken for granted. It must be cultivated, as culture, and this why Wordsworth is so preoccupied with the writing of epitaphs: the grave is the material site of mediation between living and dead, and between living and living via the dead.

The sensations of pious cheerfulness, which attend the celebration of the Sabbath-day in rural places, are profitably chastised by the sight of the graves of kindred and friends, gathered together in that general home towards which the thoughtful yet happy spectators themselves are journeying. Hence a parish-church, in the stillness of the country, is a visible centre of a community of the living and the dead; a point to which are habitually referred the nearest concerns of both. (2:55-56)

Wordsworth thus shifts ground from the passions and politics of Smith and Burke, toward an anthropological account. But if the point in this passage seems unworried and merely descriptive, consider the drama of “We Are Seven.” Here the poet-narrator encounters an eight-year-old seemingly immune to the community-binding orthodoxy grounded in the distinction between life and death, earth and heaven. Her unregulated sympathy for the dead refuses this distinction, even though it’s spelled out upon the very gravestones that mark her siblings’ tombs, which lie not “Twelve steps or more from my mother’s door.” And yet she is impervious to the logic of the very churchyard that houses her. As Wordsworth finds himself moving closer to Anglican orthodoxy, the stakes of this confrontation with the “little cottage girl” only get higher.

Wordsworth’s epitaphic theory disembeds mourning (to borrow Michael McKeon’s notion) into an object of knowledge—where mourning both participates in and stands for the communal bond as a whole. What Wordsworth attempts is a return to the practices that had been disrupted, now sustained only in idealized pockets of rural life. But this return to mourning, as an object of knowledge subject to theory, must now be self-conscious and stylized. If the revolution marked the failure of mourning, then mourning must be theorized and revived by an explicit and explicated practice. Thus the science of the epitaph prizes an affected simplicity.

A disembedded theory of elegy becomes mobile and extensible. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire is a prime example of this phenomenon. The reflexive, anthropological elegiac theory of Burke and Wordsworth can operate at various levels of scale—family, community, nation, empire. In Skyfall, what distinguishes Bond and Q is not their reading of history as “the inevitability of time,” but rather how they feel about this inevitability. Turner’s painting has the effect of consolidating the present by delineating what it has consigned to scrap—mourning all the while.

As the scene closes, Bond can only sigh: “brave new world.” Huxley is perhaps the immediate reference here. But of course these words come from Miranda in The Tempest; with what I imagine is a gentle smile, Prospero replies, “‘Tis new to thee.” Bond plays the modern elegiac subject bitterly, which is to say, perfectly. Too cynical to betray his wistfulness, he steps into Miranda’s role less than half-heartedly. But this role is as inevitable, he imagines, as the progress he decries. Progress is inevitable and progress is farce: this is the theory of history so seductively dramatized on Turner’s canvas. Needless to say, the argument of the painting goes unchallenged.


Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Ed. Conor Cruise O’Brien. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.

Fosso, Kurt. Buried Communities: Wordsworth and the Bond of Mourning. New York: SUNY Press, 2003.

McKeon, Michael. The Secret History of Domesticity: Public, Private, and the Division of Knowledge. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2005.

Paine, Thomas. Rights of Man. Ed. Henry Collins. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971.

Rodner, William S. J.M.W. Turner: Romantic Painter of the Industrial Revolution. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press. 1998.

Schor, Esther. Bearing the Dead: The British Culture of Mourning from Enlightenment to Victoria. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995.

Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. New York: Prometheus, 2000.

Thackeray, William Makepeace. “May Gambols; or, Titmarsh on the Picture Galleries.” Ballads and Miscellanies. (Volume 13 in the “Biographical Edition” of Works.) London: Smith Elder, 1899. 419-445.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Men. London: J. Johnson, 1790.

Wordsworth, William. The Prose Works of William Wordsworth. Eds. W.J.B. Own and Jane Worthington Smyser. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974.