The most popular post to date on Life Matters is called “Invictus Revisited.” It is accessed almost daily since its original publication on March 14, 2010. 17 visits in fact. People may be coming to the site to read the poem itself. But the original purpose of the post was to present Dorothy Day’s revisiting of the poem and her rewritten version.
The original poem was written in 1875 by William Ernest Henley, but not published until 1888. Henley’s personal story. Henley contracted tuberculosis in the bone at age 12 and amputation was the only cure. He lived with and overcame his disability in age when persons with handicaps were given little assistance or encouragement. “Invictus” was written from a hospital bed; but Henley, true to the sentiment of his poem, lived an active life until age 53 when he died.
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.
When I was in high school in the late 60s and pastoring in the 70s and early 80s, “Invictus” was the staple of many a valedictorian’s graduation speech. As you read its word, you can understand why it appealed to young men and young women ready to start out on the challenges of adulthood, claiming the confidence that every fresh, and yet unseasoned grad often operates by.
Invictus means “unconquered” in Latin and speaks of taking responsibility for one’s own destiny. An anonymous commentator on the poem referring to is popularity recently wrote to the “Upstage” blog of the Indianapolis Star:
“Invictus” pits the speaker against “the fell clutch of circumstance” and various dire threats, including death, and demands that we admire his courage and steadfastness. How does such rigid, robotic poetry become famous? Because it captures attitudes people like to entertain with so little ambiguity that it can seem the last word on the matter.”
I confess that I generally share this observation without its caustic remark about the poetic style of Henley. People are drawn to this poem in part because it captures attitudes people like to entertain, whether those attitudes are helpful or rooted in reality.
Not every soul is unconquerable. Many persons born into poverty or tyranny, left unassisted and defeated by the principalities and powers of their culture descend into a kind of despair and self-image that forever leaves them prisoners of their self-image.
Not every one is the captain of their fate and the master of their soul. Try saying that to a child who is abused. Try saying that to some who is illiterate and is denied any education. How about wage slaves? How about women in societies that have no rights and are maimed and brutalized in the name of their cultural values or religion? How about the employee of a corporation who is tossed aside after 40 years and has his pension fund looted by the corporate leaders?
Yes, we must take personal responsibility for our actions and not easily surrender to rationalizations and self justifications that defeat us before we even begin. But none of us truly has final say or ultimate power over our own lives and certainly over the universe in which we must live.
For us to rise above it all requires help. On the basic level, we know that we are interdependent not independent human beings and this required some shared values and cooperation in order to survive, let alone conquer. A popular rewriting of Psalm 23 that appeared in the Sixties, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil–for I am the meanest S.O.B. in the valley. In a world of real evil and destructive sin, there is always a meaner S.O.B. in the valley. And to choose that “arms race” usually destroys your soul.
For a Christian – that necessary help comes from the true Master of Our Soul – Jesus Christ. In my next post I will comment on that.
(C) 2010 by Stephen L Dunn