I started writing this post this morning, Pearl Harbor day, December 7, on my 62nd birthday, at 7:00 AM, at pain level 7. This is a victory for me, since before, at this level, I used to whimper and cower under a bush like a dog run over. But now I’m writing. I’m still whimpering a bit, but I’m making sure nobody hears me. But I’m writing. Writing admittedly grim stuff, with lots of typos and weird phrases, but writing. In some places I write those things that you edit out later, thinking: I was going to post THAT to my blog? In the background — OK, foreground — Michael W. Smith is singing “You are holy; holy are you, Lord God Almighty …” Anna doesn’t mind the music; in fact, I suspect that if I suddenly turned off the music she’d sit up and ask: “What was that?” She’s been doing this for forty years.
In my throes, the Victorian poet William Ernest Henley (1849–1903), a contemporary of Rudyard Kipling and Winston Churchill, came to my attention. Henley’s leg was amputated due to tuberculosis, and he wrote the poem after he was informed that the other leg would have to go too. He refused to accept this latest blow, and eventually his remaining leg was saved by a competent doctor. But lots of pain, lots of anguish.
While you ponder the poem, I’ll make my way to the kitchen and get some coffee for Anna and myself. She’s the only person I know whom you can wake up in the middle of the night and give a cup of coffee. She’s the only person I really know, period, because the day before yesterday was our fortieth anniversary.
OK, here’s the poem. Read it and think about it. There will be a short quiz.
Out of the night that covers me,Black as the pit from pole to pole,I thank whatever gods may beFor my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstanceI have not winced nor cried aloud.Under the bludgeoning of chanceMy head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tearsLooms but the Horror of the shade,And yet the menace of the yearsFinds, 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.
I’m back with coffee. Gave Anna her mug. Got a kiss for my trouble. Hey, Agamemnon started a war for less. [sip] I swear this stuff can not only cure cancer but possibly raise the dead. Cannot do without it. The coffee ain’t bad either. My name is Gerhard and I’ll be here all week.
Before we discuss, let’s just unpack some of the stuff between the lines.
In the first stanza,
But of the night that covers me,Black as the pit from pole to pole,I thank whatever gods may beFor my unconquerable soul
there are some clues to the eternal nature of the horror facing us: the “pit” in the second line refers to hell, “night” and “black” set a pretty dark tone as well. “Whatever gods may be” says the poet is not sure of the aid or even of the existence of a helping God. But in the mist of this picture of hell stands his soul: “unconquerable.” This “unconquerable” anchors the poem to its title; it’s simply the English word for the Latin title: Invictus.
The second stanza details the powers arrayed against him:
The first stanza already placed him in a hellish situation; now he is in the “fell clutch” of this random earth. “Fell” is the favorite word of Tolkien, for instance, to describe the hellish forces of orcs, demons, and evil gods (or “wizards” in Middle Earth). He is “bludgeoned” by this randomness (“chance”), and his head is bloody. But again, just as in the first stanza, his soul defies all these forces of darkness: he has not winced or cried out, and his head is still “unbowed.” Still invictus!
More of the same in third stanza:
This hellish earth is a place of “wrath and tears,” which is self-explanatory. There is also the horror of “the shade.” In antiquity, the souls of the departed were not the immortal rays of spiritual light they are now; the departed were thought of as weak and powerless versions of our vital selves — mere shadows of our human bodies. Shades. The final scene in the Russel Crowe movie “Gladiator,” which paints his return home after his death, although triumphant, is set in shades of gray and in slow motion. Thus “shade” refers to death here. The years “menace” us, because inexorably with the years come old age and, of course, death. “And yet,” he says, death will find him how? “Unafraid!” See the pattern? In each stanza, first the forces of evil, then his unconquered soul, still standing.
As we’ve come to expect, the last stanza begins with a detailing of the forces arrayed against us. Note how easy it has become by now to substitute “ourselves” for “the poet.” By now, he is speaking for all of humanity. The “strait” gate refers to the fact, in my opinion, that the Christian way of salvation is not necessarily open to him. Matthew 7:13, (*NIV*) reads: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. “Strait” has the meaning of “narrow” in the poem, as in sea straits.
In a similar Biblical vein, the scroll into which his name should have been written is, instead, full of indictments of his past sins. The dice are loaded against him. But by now we know that he will defy all this. And he does. “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”
Now pay attention, class. He is not saying that he is stronger than God or “whatever god (there) may be,” or resistant to the bludgeoning of fate, or even qualified to get into eternal glory through the narrow gate. No, he is the master and captain of his soul because he, and only he, and not even God, controls how he reacts to his circumstances.
Yes, I said “not even God.” How can I say this? Because God gave each human being free will. He wanted us to have the power to love him; to choose to serve him out of our own accord. There was no claw-back clause. We were stuck with our new, exciting world, the one in which we were master and captain.
I think Tom Petty is saying the same thing when he sings, in I won’t back down:
No, I won’t back downYou can stand me up at the gates of hellBut I won’t back downNo, I’ll stand my ground, won’t be turned aroundAnd I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me downGonna stand my ground and I won’t back down.
Being invictus means that you, my dear reader, are in full control of how you react to your circumstances, no matter how grim they may be. If you get gangrene in your leg, you cannot control the fact that your leg will have to be amputated. But when your loved one walks in you must decide whether you say: “I love you, thanks for coming” or “Leave me alone, I’m in pain. Go away.” The leg? Slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (or God, if you’re so inclined) are responsible for that one. But how you react to its loss and the pain and heartache? Look to the captain of your soul.
How is a devoted Christian to read this poem? Well, the bludgeonings of chance have done a number on me, too, so on some days I can’t even manage to get out of bed without my faith (imperfect as it is) in God. Note very well that I’m not saying that I’m a man of God who has an angel sitting on my shoulder 24×7. I am saying that I’m a poor, broken human being and that I sometimes fall asleep while I’m praying and sometimes don’t say a word to God for a week. And we all worry about having a few entries in that scroll when our final trumpet sounds.
As a Christian I’m not living in a hotel for saints; I’m languishing in a hospital for sinners. And as a Christian I’m not afraid to say: “I’m the captain of my soul.” But I wouldn’t want to steer that sucker without God in wheel house.