Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may 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 punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
Straight into the deep end! In his best-known poem, Henley talks not only about courage, but HIS courage. As a youngster he suffered from tuberculosis of the bone which resulted in the amputation of his left leg below the knee before his 20th birthday. Robert Louis Stevenson modelled Long John Silver in Treasure Island on Henley. Many people attest to Henley’s courage in ignoring the pain of his ailment – ‘a great, glowing, massive-shouldered fellow with a big red beard and a crutch; jovial, astoundingly clever, and with a laugh that rolled like music; he had an unimaginable fire and vitality; he swept one off one's feet’ wrote Lloyd Osbourne, Stevenson’s step-son. Henley’s only child, Margaret, died at the age of five. Margaret inspired JM Barrie in his creation of Wendy in Peter Pan; she had a slight speech defect and called Barrie her ‘fwendy-wendy’.
The poem itself is immense. The rhythm, metre and rhyme of the sixteen lines seem to create a marching effect, towards self-determination. One almost wants to shout the last lines! I am the expert of me, no-one else. My soul is unconquerable, and what’s more it is mine alone to direct. ‘Whatever gods may be’, ‘the bludgeonings of chance’, ‘the strait gate and the scroll charged with punishments’… all these frights ‘find and shall find me unafraid’.
When I read this aloud (a wonderful habit for poetry), I enjoy stressing ‘and shall find me’, as an acknowledgement that it is my will power, my determination, my destiny to be brave in the face of overwhelming odds. Yesterday saw the commemorations for the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy; imagine what Henley might have felt, might have written had he witnessed that array of brave men!
And moral courage. Clint Eastwood chose Invictus as the title of his film on Nelson Mandela. There must have been a connection between the poem and the film on Mandela’s determination to exit 27 years of incarceration with reconciliation and compromise in his heart. No matter how ‘dark, night, fell, shade, horror, menace, wrath’…. all these images from the poem still did not overcome Madiba – he can choose how he will face them, how he will overcome! So, I MUST choose also as a human being ‘I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul’.
June 7 2019