The first words ever to move me were penned by William Earnest Henley just after his leg was amputated. “Invictus” was put on a screen in my 8th grade English classroom for a rhyme scheme lesson. I furiously copied every word, oblivious. Henley’s words challenged my view of myself as a leaf in the wind. It was the first time I coveted strength.
Little did I know “Invictus” also inspired such great men as Nelson Mandela, who leaned upon it during his horrific treatment in various South African jails. Later Morgan Freeman, who portrayed Mandela, would love it enough to memorize the lines.
You can imagine my disappointment when American terrorist Timothy McVeigh declared it his favorite poem too. I wanted to tell McVeigh he couldn’t possibly like my poem, that monsters aren’t allowed to like poems about inner strength and perseverance. Were you the captain of all those other souls too, McVeigh? The ones you stole from the earth? I still remember when he was put to death. I remember thinking McVeigh was about to meet “what Gods may be,” and that he was in for a serious and much-deserved detention.
Truth is, I fell in love with this poem before I fell in love with my Savior, so some of the sentiments don’t exactly apply anymore. I know “whatever gods may be” and He’s the captain of my soul, rightly so and to my joy. “Beyond this place” of mostly blessings, lies more blessing still. The I-won’t-be-crushed-come-what-may attitude still speaks to me and makes me sad for Henley, who thought he was destined for hell after completion of a miserable life. Henley’s words, though a timeless, elegant commiseration and call to courage, betray a misapplied trust (in self), a lack of faith (in God), and a pitiable error (his captainhood). Only by half does this poem speak to my heart, how funny that it once stole it.
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.