My favorite poem was basically written by the one-legged pirate, Long John Silver. What’s worse, my favorite poem was also the favorite of Timothy McVeigh, infamous building-bomber-baby-killer, who went so far as to quote it just before leaving this world by lethal injection in June, 2001. I remember thinking that McVeigh was about to meet the true captain of his soul. I remember wishing that “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley, the real-life inspiration for Treasure Island’s antagonist, wasn’t my favorite poem. But still, it is.
Don’t go. Stay with me.
I can still picture my 8th grade English classroom, and the balding, feather-haired, doughy teacher who introduced “Invictus” to me. A muted man, I hardly remember a thing about his character, but I do remember the feeling of being broadsided by the power of words. It was the first time I loved words enough to write them on my heart. Perseverance was my only prince back then: the only strength I knew, and “Invictus” was the portrait of my prince.
Henley ascribes his “unconquerable soul” to “whatever gods may be.” This too, was me. I could have written that poem, had I been so gifted. And– agnostic I remained until I was 27, until my own strength failed me for the straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back time, and I dived into a faith that has held me ever since.
Poor Henley. How he inspired 8th-grade-me and so many others. Yet he most likely died, not knowing how strong he could have been.The strongest we can ever be, we can only be after admitting our weakness– at least once. The moment I acknowledge my limit, God pushes it way beyond my wildest imaginings. That’s what Henley never knew, though he had an iron will.
A broken bone heals stronger than the original bone. Henley never broke.
Henley had reason to call this life “a place of wrath and tears.” When he was 12 years old, his father died. As if that weren’t enough, Henley developed tuberculosis and had to have his foot amputated. “Invictus” was written as he lay in the hospital, in the agonizing phantom pain that plagues amputees. His remaining foot was in jeopardy of being amputated as well, but Henley wouldn’t have it.
Just “how charged with punishment [were] the scrolls” for Henley? More than most of us can imagine. I don’t know about you, but I wish, when in my own shallow ruts of despair, that I could be half the person Henley was in that Mariana trench experience of losing a foot and a father.
When Henley speaks of life’s “bludgeons,” he’s not being theoretical.
So that’s it. Henley, in one sense, is my hero. In another, I pity him. I no longer agree with many of the notions in “Invictus.” I don’t think it all resides in me. I know that God is completely in charge of my ever-so-conquerable soul. I still hope to have an unbowed head–if it must be bloody– but a deeply bowed soul in the presence of my Lord and Savior.
Nelson Mandela drew strength from “Invictus” while in jail and passed it on to his fellow inmates. Later, he motivated the South African Rugby team with its empowering lines. I still love “Invictus” for its message of strength, but I now know the name of that strength: Jesus. He is my strength, my shield, my everlasting hope.
I wish Timothy McVeigh didn’t like my favorite poem.
But think about this: Hitler liked tea parties.
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 bludgeons 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 straight the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
— William Ernest Henley, 1888