I’m not very conversant with poetry, but I’ve run into a few “pomes” over the years that have really grabbed me. (In other words, this is one place where I don’t know art, but I know what I like.)
In the past I’ve published copies of favorite poems on my personal website, and I’ve always intended to write about them in a blog article. For this poem especially, no time like the present.
Without, as they say, further ado, here’s the poem:
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 or 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.
If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “My head is bloody, but unbowed,” now you know where it comes from. You may also have heard the final couplet.
The poem, obviously, is about perseverance. In fact, the title is Latin for “unconquored.” One can view it as being about facing extraordinary trials or just the trials and tribulations of life. Regardless of the degree of obstacles you face, it’s about keeping your course. It’s no coincidence, I think, that the poem ends with a suggestion of ships.
Perhaps Invictus resonates so well because the idea of the unbowed bloody head is such a compelling theme. The Rocky movies, and the classic Die Hard, both epitomize this theme. There are many other examples. It’s a fundamental plot arc: the hero defeated, the montage of the hero training or otherwise getting their shit together, the hero ultimately winning. It’s the core of just about every sports movie.
[The “Gotta Have a Montage” montage from the Team America movie: One of the funniest scenes from one of the funniest movies!]
One place I might not entirely agree with Henley is the bit about being unafraid. I think most people experience fear. The trick is how you respond to it. Being the captain of your ship means mastering your fear, navigating through it. (However, note that by no means am I speaking from a position of skill on the matter. Understanding does not always translate to doing.)
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
Just the first two lines are worth memorizing. “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.“
Sometimes fear is a matter of perspective. From childhood I was very needle-phobic (which made bees and wasps slightly problematic, but it also put one more bullet point on the Reasons to Never Inject Drugs list). As an adult, it made going to the doctor much tougher (seems like they always find a reason to stick a needle in ya).
So one time I’m sitting in the chair waiting to get my blood drawn (and I’m quietly freaking out inside as usual — probably leaving finger marks in the steel armrests). Then it occurs to me that I’ve been skydiving lately, jumping out of airplanes, for crying out loud, and I’m afraid of a medical professional doing a routine medical procedure? And one that, when you come down to it, doesn’t hurt any worse than a stubbed toe.
It was like a switch had been thrown, and ever since it’s been no big deal. (Although, to be honest, I’m still kind of working through the Novocaine needle in the gums at the dentist. That one still makes my skin crawl.)
Getting back to Invictus, it struck such a chord with me back then because I was already well acquainted with the idea of persevering against odds. For one thing, it was in the science fiction I’d been reading since childhood. Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, their adventure stories often followed the classic hero against the odds theme.
Even comic books explored classic themes, and certainly once I got to school and was introduced to the actual classics, I got to know the source material that drove Henley in the first place. To write such a great poem, the concepts it involves were already well-known to him.
Taking this back where it started, that discussion touched on the sad fact that many people (these days? always?) manage to reach adulthood without running into these classic concepts in any formal way. They may have seen the Rocky movies, and others, without really internalizing the themes that drive it.
I think that’s one of the tragedies of our time. The literature of the past has much to teach us. When we ignore it, we’re forced to re-learn those lessons, which is a wasteful approach.
The Death of a Liberal Arts Education, I call it! I think we’ve become too distracted by toys and other meaningless nonsense. We apologize for being “deep” or “thoughtful” or even “long-winded” (where “long-winded” means anything more than 140 characters). We often seem ashamed or embarrassed of being intelligent.
Increasingly we operate from the position of our feelings, which really makes us no better than children or beasts. We operate from the gut, like an animal, rather than from the head, like a human. (I’m not saying our emotions are bad; our higher emotions are incredible. I am saying the head needs to lead; the heart, the gut, pushes (often blindly, hence the need to lead).)
But anyway, there you go, Invictus, one of my favorite poems ever!