During his imprisonment on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela found inspiration in what has come to be one of the most hackneyed poems in the English language. Mandela is hardly alone in his admiration for the Victorian-era poem 'Invictus' -- other fans included John F. Kennedy and Timothy McVeigh -- and Mandela is just one of many to appropriate (or misappropriate) the poem.
Books were hard to come by on Robben Island. "Receiving books at all was often a challenge," Mandela wrote in Long Walk to Freedom, "Because of the vagaries of the mail system, the remoteness of the island, and the often deliberate slowness of the censors, the book would reach you after the date that it needed to be returned." But he managed to read as much as he could (Greek dramas, including Antigone, were favorites), and "Invictus," by British poet and literary critic William Ernest Henley, struck a chord. He memorized it and recited it to inspire fellow inmates. Latin for "unconquered," the poem will probably sound familiar even to those who haven't read a poem since high school literature classes:
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 bludgeoning 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.
It's a terse, direct poem, so stirring that the writers of the 2009 film Invictus, about South Africa's 1995 Rugby World Cup, took creative license with history by having Mandela give a copy of the poem to the captain of the national rugby team. (In fact, Mandela gave him the "man in the arena" passage from Theodore Roosevelt's "Citizenship in a Republic" speech.) In the words of literary critic John Ciardi, "Invictus" is "perhaps the most widely known bad poem in English" -- powerful, sure, but melodramatic and so certain and self-assured as to be unsympathetic.
Henley was not always as confident as his words suggest. During his life, he was known as much for his career as a literary critic as a poet but had time to write during a two-year convalescence while he suffered from tuberculosis, which resulted in the amputation in one of his legs. Another poem, written in 1875, the same year as "Invictus," concludes, "Life is (I think) a blunder and a shame." His only other poem that's still commonly read today is his jingoistic ode "England, My England," which has maintained its relevance by fueling satire by successive generations of literary greats, including D.H. Lawrence and George Orwell.
His work promoting others left a more lasting mark than his own body of work. He was good friends with Robert Louis Stevenson (who based the pirate Long John Silver in Treasure Island on Henley), and as an editor he published early works from Rudyard Kipling, H.G. Wells, W.B. Yeats, Joseph Conrad, George Bernard Shaw, and Henry James, among other notables.
"Invictus" succeeded where Henley's other poems failed, perhaps because it is so broad as to be relatable to just about anyone who has faced a challenge. Few of the challenges rise to level of the poem's purple prose, but some do, and it's no wonder that the poem has been a favorite of world leaders and activists over the last century. Aung San Suu Kyi has said that former Burmese political prisoner U Win Tin found solace in the poem during interrogations. Martin Luther King, Jr. was known to quote from it, as was Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India. Winston Churchill recited the closing lines in Parliament in September 1941. It was a favorite of John F. Kennedy (and is assigned reading from another unrelated Kennedy, Justice Anthony Kennedy). It's also been put in the mouths of presidents -- it features in Ronald Reagan's 1945 film Kings Row, and in the play and film Sunrise in Campobello about the life of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Its ubiquity has made it a go-to for less powerful moments -- it is trotted out in treacly Hollywood fare, from Casablanca to teen-soap One Tree Hill. Other times it's a punchline, as on 30 Rock and the Big Bang Theory.
But it's not always the righteous or overly sentimental who appropriate the message of resilience at the heart of the poem. The poem gained a new notoriety in 2001 when Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh left a hand-written copy of ‘Invictus' as his final statement before being executed. It's also a favorite among white supremacists. There are at least two "hatecore" bands that have named themselves after the poem. Invictus Books, a publisher of neo-Nazi literature which the Southern Poverty Law Center has listed as an active hate group, lists only the text of the poem on its "About Invictus Press" page. It's cited frequently in postings on white supremacist forum Stormfront.
Probably only a few of the poem's proponents know that the poem originated in a hospital bed and not in a war or popular struggle. Even fewer would note the conscious de-emphasis of "whatever gods may be" -- a powerful statement of Henley's secular humanism -- or that the title and the author's "unconquerable soul" are allusions to Satan's assertion of his "unconquerable will" in 'Paradise Lost' (which isn't to suggest Henley was a Satanist, just an admirer of Milton). What is unmistakable is the poem's power to inspire, both greatness and evil alike.
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