Monday, December 14, 2009


We're going to the movies later today, to see Clint Eastwood's latest project, Invictus, with Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as the captain of the South African rugby team.  I fully expect to be moved and inspired; the trailers alone have almost brought me to tears.  But I don't want to write about the film, but rather the poem that serves as its title.

     I think I must have been about twelve when I first read "Invictus," and its power was immediately evident to me, even then.  Children so often feel powerless, and the junior high school years can be so painful. I don't even remember much about mine except small, disconnected bits and pieces. I certainly didn't enjoy them, though I don't think I was any more miserable than many, perhaps most of my peers--but I was miserable enough.  And so I often retreated into books for escape, solace, and inspiration.  I found all three in Louis Untermeyer's A Treasury of Great Poems English and American, the massive (nearly 1300 pages) poetry anthology that had been the text for one of my mother's college courses.  I still have it, with its yellowed pages, its spine reinforced with duct tape, clad in a ridiculously bright spandex cover that makes it stand out from the more sober shades on the covers of the other volumes of poetry on the shelf.  Through this wonderful collection (and Untermeyer's always fascinating commentary on each poet and his or her work) I met many friends, among them William Ernest Henley, who wrote "Invictus."


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods there be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Brave words, strong words--I memorized them right away and they have come back to give me strength and courage during dark times.  At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I'd say they have shaped much of my response to life.

     But my hardships could not begin to compare with Henley's.  He was, to use a politically incorrect word but probably the one Henley himself would have used, a cripple.  Due to a tubercular disease of the bone, one leg was amputated when he was twelve or thirteen and doctors later recommended amputation of the other, but after long treatment by Lister (the father of antiseptic surgery) that leg was saved.  A man of generous spirit, he became a magazine editor and discovered and nurtured many younger writers, though he drove himself so hard that at one point he thought he had extinguished his own poetic abilities.  He was mistaken, and some of his later poems are among his most beautiful.  Tragedy returned, however, when the death of his five-year-old daughter finally broke his spirit.  He died nine years later at the age of fifty-four, leaving behind many poems, but especially this one that has inspired so many readers.

     Henley was imprisoned by his physical disabilities, but for the most part he overcame "the bludgeonings of chance" to live a productive, if too-short, life characterized by talent, hard work, kindness, and generosity.  Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robbin Island for twenty-seven years and managed to remain "bloodied but unbowed," inspired, in part, by Henley's poem. He emerged to lead a nation and to work for unity, when many others would have preferred to take revenge for all the years and cruelties of apartheid.  I imagine that thousands of others like me, unknown and unlikely to be remembered except by those who were close to us, have also called up Henley's words as we faced our own, individual dark nights of the soul.

     I wonder if "Invictus" could even find a publisher today.  It is, perhaps, too emotional, too florid to be considered "cool."  It is powered (and I use that verb deliberately) by obvious, muscular rhyme and meter; I feel my fists clench and my jaw tighten when I read or remember it, because these are the appropriate physical reactions to threat or pain or "the fell clutch of circumstance." We fight back or, like Mandela, we hold on to the values that sustain us.

    Students today don't seem to pay much attention to poetry.  I've had students tell me they never read any poetry in high school, never wrote papers on literature, and certainly never memorized a poem.  My teachers made us do all those things and I think we were the better for it.  I remember having to memorize Bryant's "Thanatopsis"--I didn't much like it but it's there if I need an example of iambic pentameter.  My paper on Lord Byron turned into the soap opera chronicle of his love life, but Mrs. Whittemore recognized the work I'd put into my research and gave me an A anyway; probably she enjoyed the story too.  We read Macbeth aloud in her class; it was wonderful.  Mostly, however, I remember the discoveries I made on my own, when I escaped from "this place of wrath and tears" into the words of others who had faced the same trials and worse and who gave me, in their words, tools to help me face my own world and perhaps reshape it into a more friendly place.

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