Thursday, September 28, 2017

National Poetry Day 2017

Master of his fate. Captain of his soul.
Today is National Poetry Day in the UK.  I’m not a huge fan of poetry, but as a former English Literature major, I’ve certain read more than my fair share (and probably some of your share as well).  I do, however, have a soft spot for a good bit of verse.  Invictus is one such poem.  You might be familiar with it already, possibly from Nelson Mandela's history, or from the Matt Damon movie of the same name (which invoked the poem), but you may not know much about the author.

William Ernest Henley (1849–1903) was a Victorian poet, who suffered—as many did at that time—a dirt-poor childhood and all the pains that go along with that.  One of those remaining “gifts” from his younger years was, as with many others, tuberculosis.  In 1875, when Henley was 26, complications from his tuberculosis cost him his left leg.  The upside of this was that his friend and fellow writer, Robert Lewis Stevenson, based Long John Silver partially on Henley’s jovial character and, of course, the amputated leg.  Stevenson wrote to Henley in a letter after the publication of Treasure Island:

I will now make a confession: It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver . . . the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you.

Further misfortune befell Henley, and his doctors advised that to save his life, his other leg must also be amputated.  As a life-long runner, I can imagine the sheer horror of facing that kind of loss—and Victorian medicine was in its infancy, with prosthetics still rudimentary at best, and always painful.  Henley sought out Dr. Joseph Lister, who was a pioneering surgeon of the time, and although he underwent several painful surgeries over the next few years, his right leg was saved.

While Henley was recovering in the hospital, he wrote an untitled poem, which was included in his first published collection Book of Verses.  Later, the title Invictus was added; Latin for “undefeated” or “unconquerable”. 

With this history in mind, it is understandable why I chose to incorporate the verses of Henley’s Invictus into the titles for Company of the Damned.  Del’s history, that of the characters that surround her, and her current circumstances seem (perhaps arrogantly) worthy of Henley’s beautiful words.  Thus, I present for your reading pleasure the 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.

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.

Thank you, Mr. Henley.  Thank you very much.

Please feel free to share the titles and authors of your favorite poems in the comments.

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