I’m continuing this month with another of my favorite poems on the Fire Star Press blog. My May article HERE was about My Papa’s Waltz by Theodore Roethke. My June article HERE was about Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s poem, Casey at the Bat.
For July, the poem I’m writing about is Invictus by William Ernest Henley, which is one of several poems I’ve memorized. You can read the poem HERE. This is a reprint of the article at Fire Star Press.
Here is a bit about his life¹/² —
Henley was born in Gloucester, England in 1849 (d. 1903). When he was 12, he was diagnosed with tubercular arthritis that resulted in the amputation of one of his legs just below the knee. Years later, his other foot was saved due to the care of Dr. Joseph Lister. Henley spent three years in the hospital in the care of Dr. Joseph Lister, who treated his diseased foot with what was at that time, a radical approach.
During this hospital stay, Henley began to write poems. This is also when he met, and became friends with, Robert Louis Stevenson. It is said that Stevenson based his Long John Silver character in Treasure Island on Henley.
Henley and his wife had a daughter, Margaret, but she was a sickly child and only lived to be five years old. J. M. Barrie, a friend of the family, was fond of Margaret. In her speech-challenged way, she called Barrie her fwendy-wendy, which inspired Barrie to use the name Wendy in his story of Peter Pan.
Henley wrote Invictus in 1875. He published it in 1888 in his first volume of poetry, A book of verses. Click HERE for more information. His poetry is available through Project Gutenberg.
Invictus is a poem that speaks to us with a universal message that we must reach way down into our Will to Live, grab it with both hands, and never let go despite the challenges we’re facing or experiencing. It tells us to find the courage to go on in the face of hopelessness—whatever that hopelessness is on an individual and personal basis.
Another way to summarize this poem might be controlling what we can (our reactions and attitudes) when things around us are out of control (life’s not-so-pleasant challenges).
My reaction to this poem is this:
The first stanza is affirmation of the spiritual strength that keeps him going. It’s interesting that he doesn’t narrow his spiritual support to a particular denomination or belief. It’s spiritual strength that means something different to each person who reads this poem.
The second stanza explains his steadfast determination to meet adversity, hopelessness, and challenges head on and not only never back down, but to never complain. As my brother-in-law used to tell his kids when they played baseball and were hit in the chest by the pitcher’s fast ball: Don’t let that kid know he can throw hard enough to hurt you.
The third stanza is another affirmation of standing tall and courageous through it all, while also facing the unknown of the future, or even what comes after death, with dignity and fearlessness.
The fourth stanza (with allusion to a phrase from the King James Bible³) wraps up the poem with a declaration of pride that no matter the dire situation he faced in the past or will face in the future, which are both out of his control, he can control how he reacts. Hence, the famous lines…
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
This poem resonates with me, because, like all of us, I’ve experienced hopelessness, heartache, injury, illness, and death. I’ve doubted my purpose in life, but I’ve soldiered on. I’ve put one foot in front of the other with the belief that tomorrow is another day.
Back in my teaching days, one of the graduating classes chose this poem as their creed. As a group, they recited this poem to the audience on graduation day. It was a proud moment for me as their English teacher that the units we did on poetry all through junior high and high school (through which I dragged more than a few of students kicking and screaming) had been worth it.
Here is Morgan Freeman reciting Invictus. His reading is a tribute to Nelson Mandela, who reportedly relied upon this poem to help him through the ordeal he faced for so many years.
Until next time,
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