12 June 2019
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.
William Ernest Henley was a young man when he wrote those lines almost 150 years ago. He was in the hospital at the time, being treated for tuberculosis of the bones – his left leg had been amputated at the knee when he was only 16 years old. Some years later, he was told his right leg needed amputation as well. Henley avoided this, seeking out Edinburgh surgeon James Lister, who provided alternative treatment, saving the leg. It was during this period in Scotland that he wrote Invictus.
While in Edinburgh, Henley made the acquaintance of Robert Louis Stevenson; their friendship lasted for many years. Stevenson later noted that Treasure Island’s Long John Silver had been based on his friend Henley – like Henley, Long John was written as one-legged, with a strong rasping voice and a forceful personality.
I believe that – the poem is certainly a forceful one. The last two lines are surely familiar to almost everyone, as is the phrase “bloody, but unbowed.” But they are all too often taken apart from their context.
The author was under 30, suffered from a life-threatening and debilitating disease, had already lost one leg and had faced with resolute refusal the prospect of being left, literally, without a leg to stand on.
M. Scott Peck’s book, The Road Less Traveled (first published in 1978), opens with the following words:
“Life is difficult.”
I think it’s safe to assume William Ernest Henley knew a good bit about that. And from the depths of his own adversity, he wrote Invictus, which focuses on – and illustrates – the human spirit, and its ability to overcome adversity.
When I am facing a struggle, I sometimes remember Katrina, and the difficulties it brought with it. I survived. And will survive this struggle. And the next.
Where do you look for strength when facing difficulties?
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