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Posted by on Jul 14, 2010

Invictus (the poem)

This might go down as my most unoriginal blog post to date, but I was struck by a poem referenced several times in the Invictus movie from Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman as Mandela. In the movie, Mandela mentions to the rugby captain character of a poem he used to recite when things were particularly tough on Robben Island, the penal colony on an island outside of Cape Town.

I found that seeing it in text for some reason actually is more moving than hearing it spoken aloud. I have no reason why this might be except that we have almost always consumed poetry this way. In books, as an assignment, scribbled in a notebook. Certainly not as originally intended in Norse epics and Ovid’s verse, but that is information distribution in a modern world. Via text. Either way, it is a beautiful poem most importantly due to its simplicity. It doesn’t try to be too clever, too poignant. It is a battle waged with circumstance and this character comes out ahead knowing full well the battle was the crucible he emerged from. The challenges make the individual in this life, not the successes.

It was written by William Ernest Henley, and according to my BFF Wikipedia:

“At the age of 12, Henley fell victim to tuberculosis of the bone. A few years later, the disease progressed to his foot, and physicians announced that the only way to save his life was to amputate directly below the knee. It was amputated when he was 25. In 1867, he successfully passed the Oxford local examination as a senior student. In 1875, he wrote the “Invictus” poem from a hospital bed. Despite his disability, he survived with one foot intact and led an active life until his death at the age of 53.”

So there you go. An amputated foot. A 27 year stint in prison. Battles won, challengers bested. A slow struggle with life. And the only win is continuing. And on a long enough timeline, the longevity rate is always 0%. We just keep pushing back the darkness a bit. All that being said, I am mostly posting this because it is stirring.

“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.”

Egypt 003

Me enduring a long trip through North Africa being stranded in a fleabag motel outside Amman, Jordan (en route from Tunis to Cairo).

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2 Comments

  1. this is a fantastic poem.
    I really like the way it flows

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