Sunday, April 21, 2024

The Poetry Corner


By Norah Christianson

William Ernest Henley

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.

Here’s an old chestnut. We’ve all probably read this poem in high school. But it always stirs something in us, inspires us, makes us stronger, ups our determination. It’s good for us to read it every once in awhile. It’s restorative and encouraging. During Nelson Mandela’s 27-year imprisonment, he found such inspiration in its words that he would read “Invictus” aloud to the men incarcerated with him.

As I see it, the “night” William Ernest Henley speaks of here is the dark place we can sometimes find ourselves in this life. He has been there. He’s known suffering and grief. Even so, he thanks “whatever gods may be” for his unconquerable soul. He is thanking something outside of himself for his strong soul. He’s been given this strength. It is a gift. 

Fate, chance, the “fell” (i.e., evil, cruel, deadly) circumstance that beats us down, has bloodied him, but he remains unbeaten. And despite the fact that “the Horror of the shade” (death) is the ultimate end, Henley is not afraid. He does not heed how “strait” (i.e., narrow) or painful the “scroll” (i.e., his life story). Henley affirms that he is still the master of his fate.

I wonder, though, (for I have the gift of doubt) if we can really be the master of our fate, since the word fate itself means the development of events we cannot control. Excrement happens, as they say. I think, then, that Henley means he is in control of how he reacts and responds to his fate, and it is in this way that he is captain of his soul. 

But even believing that mastering our fate means controlling our reaction to it, I sometimes wonder if we really even have control over our reactions. Given that we are a large blob of genetic code (DNA) that was nurtured to adulthood, perhaps, in the main, we chiefly react to things according to our genetic attributes. Perhaps our personality just comes as a “gift” from whatever gods there be—or God—or fate—or begetters, in which case people are just born who they are, with some people being born kind and others mean-spirited, some born bright, some dim, some brave, some timid, some stronger than others, some more fragile. 

At one time, I was told by a friend I had “courage.” I said no, I just lacked fear. My friend said, “That IS courage.” But I think not. Courage is being brave even while feeling fear. I believe some people just happen to have been born without having much of that emotion—fear—the way some humans are born with a congenital insensitivity to pain. Henley describes himself as being “unafraid.” He does not say that he is courageous.  I do not want to take anything away from Henley. I just don’t want the rest of us to feel shame that maybe at times we are bloodied and bowed by life.

Henley was born in 1849 in Gloucester, England. He seems to have been born with a marvelous good nature. Lloyd Osbourne (Robert Louis Stevenson’s stepson), described Henley as “… a great, glowing, massive-shouldered fellow with a big red beard and a crutch; jovial, astoundingly clever, and with a laugh that rolled like music; he had an unimaginable fire and vitality; he swept one off one’s feet.” 

But though Henley had quite an excess of good nature, he also had an excess of suffering in his life. He was frequently absent from school because of illness. From an early age, he suffered from tuberculosis of the bone. His left leg was amputated in 1867 when he was 18. He knew pain all his life. But despite having been frequently absent from school, he passed the Oxford Local Schools Examination. As a young man, he went off to London to become a journalist, later working as a writer, critic, editor, and poet.

Henley spent three years in the hospital, from 1873 to 1875. In isolation there, he wrote what are known as the “hospital poems,” including “Invictus.” Being the stoic man he was did not blind him to the suffering of the patients around him. Though he himself was able to remain unbowed, he had great empathy for those suffering, broken patients. (One of his “hospital poems” was titled “Suicide.”) In 1878 he married his sweetheart, Hannah. The death of his one child, Margaret, at the age of five was his greatest blow.

After Henley’s death, from a recurrence of tuberculosis in 1903, a friend from Boston wrote of him: “There was in him something more than the patient resignation of the religious sufferer, who had bowed himself to the uses of adversity. Deep in his nature lay an inner well of cheerfulness, and a spontaneous joy of living, that nothing could drain dry.” Oh, what a gift!

So let us read “Invictus” from time to time so that Henley’s qualities might inspire and encourage us.

Note: I’ve always hated the quote, “God does not give us more than we can bear.” People kill themselves exactly because their suffering is more than they can bear. And if you believe that it is God who gives us just enough misery but no more, who dumps pain on us measured out according to our bearability, then you would have to think that God is unkind, sadistic even. But after my investigations, I’m very glad to report that the quote is incorrect! It seems to have been altered over the years, deriving from the following quote from the English Standard Version of the Bible: 1 Corinthians 10:13—

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability,  but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it. So the Bible speaks of temptation, and not suffering. I seem to have gotten in the weeds here. But I like the weeds. There’s a lot of interesting stuff down there!


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