Lived on one’s back,
In the long hours of repose,
Life is a practical nightmare –
Hideous asleep or awake.
Shoulders and loins
Ache, and the mattress,
Run into boulders and hummocks,
Glows like a kiln, while the bedclothes –
Tumbling, importunate, daft –
Ramble and roll, and the gas,
Screwed to its lowermost,
An inevitable atom of light,
Haunts, and a stertorous sleeper
Snores me to hate and despair.
(2 verses removed for the sake of brevity)
Sleep comes at last –
Sleep full of dreams and misgivings –
Broken with brutal and sordid
Voices and sounds that impose on me,
Ere I can wake to it,
The unnatural, intolerable day.
The poem you have just read is by William Ernest Henley, a man whose life was no stranger to heartache, struggle and pain. His father died at an early age, leaving his large family behind with nothing but debt. At the age of 12 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the bone, and his left leg was amputated. He spent the better part of the rest of his life struggling with the illness, proceeding through risky and painful procedures in an attempt to keep his other leg. At age 45, he lost his only child to cerebral meningitis.
What is my point in dredging up this grim tale? Well, this blog is about the darkest and the lowest you have been, and what lies down inside that pit of despair we have all succumbed to.
Henley spent two years in Edinburgh Infirmary, where he began writing poems to channel the trauma he experienced during his stay. He created a series of works called “In Hospital”, which, much like the macabre poem above, chronicle his surgeries, bedmates, and insomnia.
Eventually, as they always seem to if you are patient enough, things got better. He met his wife, whom he loved tenderly, and he wrote the poem he became most famous for. A poem that speaks so passionately of one’s indomitable spirit and triumph over despair that it has profoundly resonated through history. This poem is Invictus.
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.
You might have heard of this poem before. In 2009, a movie by the same name was produced starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. The story is biographical, and does indeed reflect actual historic events. It depicts the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa, following the dismantling of apartheid. The movie was so named because of a true claim made by Nelson Mandela himself – that he was able to survive and persevere through his decades of incarceration by leaning on the words of this inspirational poem by William Ernest Henley. Unquestionably, then, the ripples of Henley’s Invictus have influenced the state of the world.
So what, then, my dear readers, does lie within your pit of despair? It’s just you. Stripped clean of your crimes and the injustices done to you, and left at your worst, may you find the brightness of your strength and the will to produce your best.