Friday, January 27


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Our topic for today is a poem called “Invictus.” The title is a Latin word which means “Undefeated.”

This poem was written in 1875 by British poet William Ernest Henley.

He was immortalized especially by this single poem.

William Ernest Henley grew up poor. And when he was 17 years old, he had been suffering from tuberculosis to the bone. It had affected his foot and the doctors said they’d have to cut off his leg right below the knee, to save his life.

It was a very painful operation. While recovering in the hospital, Henley wrote the words of his famous poem “Invictus.”

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.

These words describe a frightening world that’s covered in complete darkness (“from pole to pole”) – like a kind of Hell or Underworld. “Whatever gods” suggests a lack or lessening of faith in divine guidance. But you can still feel that the speaker of the poem is slowly coming out of the darkness that he describes.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

In this part, the abstract concepts i.e. “circumstance” and “chance” come alive and directly oppress the speaker. For instance, "bludgeonings" means blows or strikes, with a stick or club. Yet the speaker remains unbroken.

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.

Here, all the words “wrath,” “tears,” “Horror” and “menace” bring suffering to the speaker. Death is also mentioned here as “the Horror of the shade.” And yet, the speaker remains incredibly brave.


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.

This last part has allusions to the Christian faith - “strait gate,” “punishments,” “scroll,” etc. So the speaker is talking about all the trials assigned to him by God. But in the end, the speaker triumphs. Because of his strong, inspiring words:

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

A lot of people thank William Ernest Henley for creating a great piece of poetry like “Invictus.” In fact, a lot of people through time have drawn strength and faith from his words.

One of the many people who have used the power in Henley’s words is Nelson Mandela.

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Nelson Mandela is the first black President of the then new democratic government of South Africa. He is also a Nobel Peace Prize awardee.

Mandela was affectionately known by the people by the name “Madiba,” which loosely translates to “Father of the Nation.”

But before Mandela became President, he was imprisoned in Robben Island prison because he protested against apartheid. “Apartheid” means separation. The laws in South Africa from the 1950s until early 1990s favored white supremacy and oppressed the non-white communities.

Nelson Mandela was kept in Robben Island prison together with real criminals for 27 years. He stayed in a tiny cell of 5 square meters. He had to do hard labor in a quarry at day, then sleep on a thin straw mat on the stone floor at night.

For 27 years.

Through all that time, Mandela found strength from the words of William Ernest Henley in his poem “Invictus.”

Here is a video of the Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman reenacting Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment:

When he finally became President, Nelson Mandela was a wise and benevolent leader. He brought peace and reconciliation to his divided nation. He was a shining beacon of light to all the leaders the world over. Most of all, he didn’t bear any hatred against the people responsible for his imprisonment.

This article uses material from the Wikipedia article <a href="">"Invictus"</a>, which is released under the <a href="">Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0</a>.

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