When he was only 12, William Ernest Henley contracted tuberculosis of the bone. Eventually his left foot had to be amputated just below the knee. He spent many years in and out of hospital because the disease also infected his right foot, but he refused to have it amputated as well. He was eventually discharged from hospital after being treated by the famous surgeon Joseph Lister in 1875. When he died in 1903, Henley was only two years younger than I am now. Despite his condition, during one of his lengthy stays in hospital, Henley wrote the poem below. He called it Invictus.
The word means “unconquerable”. Soon it will reverberate throughout South Africa and the world when the Clint Eastwood movie by that name is released. Read the poem as many times as you can before seeing the movie. Memorise it, if you can. It saved my life once. It might do the same for you.
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.
Think about Henley’s words — think about what they mean, to you, to us, to our times. Enjoy the movie. I plan to.