Invictus: Survival, Autonomy, Faith

William Ernest Henley Vanity Fair 1892-11-26 (from Wikipedia)

A smarty and funny Twitter friend and blogger recently reminded me of William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus. Think of it as a Victorian teenage boy’s version of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive. At the dawn of his adolescence, Henley was stricken by osseous tuberculosis, eventually having to endure a below-the-knee amputation at age 17. He must have suffered severe pain throughout his teen years and young adulthood. It is said that Invictus was inspired by the amputation; it was published in 1875, when Henley was 26.

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.

Far from expert on the Victorian era, I have the impression that it is a time of contrasts: sickly sweet sentimentality coyly nestles up to the robust “manly virtues”. It is the era of “muscular Christianity” and of strictly defined class structure and social systems. It is an era rife with sexual taboos, but its pornography is read to this day. An era of contrasts, of division, of merciless social expectations. Individuality was not encouraged.

The title Invictus (“undefeated” in Latin) was not Henley’s, but that of a later publisher. But it is perfect, isn’t it? A young boy suffering from a painful, usually fatal illness. Boys don’t cry in that time and place; they soldier through. Despite looking at first blush like a poem of extreme self-reliance, to me Invictus reads like a battle cry of strong faith in the midst of desperate circumstance.

He recognizes the reality of his illness and his grief at the loss of health and limb (the night that covers me, black as the pit) as well as the reality of his “unconquerable soul”. He graphically describes his physical and mental suffering (Under the bludgeonings of chance / My head is bloody…) and his survival (…bloody but unbowed). Looking forward, he sees nothing but more trial, more suffering, death. And then the afterlife:

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.

My reading of this, which may be unorthodox, looks very much like Erich Fromm’s point in Man’s Search for Meaning. I am living in circumstances I cannot change or control, but one power will never be taken from me: the power to choose how I deal with it. And the way I deal with circumstances of necessity changes the way they affect me. It is a dynamic relationship: by changing myself I have changed reality.

There is a Jewish saying common among the Orthodox and the Hassidim: הכל בידי שמים חוץ מיראת שמים. Loosely translated, it means “Everything is in God’s hands except fear of God.” That is where free will comes in.

I can choose how I live. As a person who believes in the Christian afterlife, I believe that how I live today will affect how I spend eternity.

I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

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3 thoughts on “Invictus: Survival, Autonomy, Faith

  1. Pingback: Partial Results (Update 3) « Telling Knots

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