Thoughtful Thursdays: Invictus

animated_thinking_cap I am thankful for the ability to ponder. To thoughtfully consider. To “split infinitives” as I please. To think. I think… Thoughtful Thursdays are one opportunity for me to share and showcase some of the ideas, sayings, proverbs, quotations and clichés that inspire and motivate me. Here’s a well known poem by William Ernest Henley entitled “Invictus

William Ernest Henley
William Ernest Henley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Many of you have probably read or heard that poem at one point in time or another, especially if you saw the movie (starring Morgan Freeman) of the same title. Nelson Mandela focused on this poem during his incarceration, often quoting it to other prisoners for inspiration. This poem was the “last statement” of Timothy McVeigh (Murrah Building bomber) on his way to the execution chamber.  What you may not have known is the background story of William Ernest Henley, who, in spite of his poem, is still almost completely unknown. Henley had tuberculosis of the bone (“Pott’s Disease”) at age 12 (14?) and had one leg amputated just below the knee years later. His doctor thought his other leg would have to be amputated; Henley got a second opinion and was able to save his remaining foot after several surgeries. Between this and “an impoverished childhood”–Henley developed a very personal understanding of Stoicism, out of which this poem was penned. It is said that Henley was “a self-declared militant humanist who hated the Christian faith, wrote this poem, “The Invictus,” (“unconquered” in Latin) with the intention of shaking his fist in defiance at the very thought of a sovereign God ruling over him.” With the challenges he faced, I can understand why he might have felt that way. Don’t agree with his…conclusion as a “militant humanist” (if true), but I understand. The inspiration for me initially was not that I was the master of all I survey or some such nonsense, but that I was master of how I chose to respond to what happened to me and that’s still true for me today. 

Henley edited the Scots Observer (which later became the National Observer), through which he befriended writer Rudyard Kipling, and the Magazine of Art, in which he lauded the work of emerging artists James McNeill Whistler and Auguste Rodin. Henley was a close friend of Robert Louis Stevenson, who reportedly based his Long John Silver character in Treasure Island in part on Henley.1

That’s why I enjoy learning the backstory as a general rule. To steal a once well known line, “And now you know, the…rest of the story.”


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