Arguably one of the best known poems in English is William Ernest Henley's "Invictus," the speaker of which asserts that he is "the master of [his] fate"--in total control. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that the poem is indirectly well known; that is, lines from it continue to adhere to the culture: "master of my fate," "captain of my soul," and "bloody, but unbowed."
Apparently, Henley himself was combative, but one might argue that he had to be. From an early age, he suffered from tuberculosis of the bone, lost one foot to amputation, and almost lost another one for the same reason. Educated at Oxford, he moved to Scotland and became a feisty editor of periodicals. With his most famous poem in mind, we might consider it ironic that he spoke very highly of one grammar-school teacher, who, according to Henley, showed him great kindness and generosity at a crucial time. Henley need help and got it. So, as always, we might be careful about applying biographical assumptions to a poet's poem.
A few years back, the poem became notorious because Timothy McVeigh quoted it just before his execution. Gore Vidal writes about this in one of his recent books of essays. While in prison, McVeigh started a correspondence with Vidal, who did not (of course) approve of the bombing but was interested in the kind of rage against the federal government that McVeigh represented. That is, Vidal wanted to try to understand McVeigh. Vidal also doubts very much that McVeigh and his one convicted partner in crime acted alone, but that's another story. Gore chides a variety of media outlets for apparently not knowing who wrote "Invictus." Checking an archive of CNN on line, however, I did discover that CNN had asked an English professor to comment on the poem, and she knew when the poem was written and by whom. Here is the poem:
by William Ernest Henley (1849–1903)
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.
"Invictus" is allegedly one Latin term for "unconquerable."
In a notebook, I just discovered a draft of a poem written in response to "Invictus." Temperamentally, I have always been inclined to react with some surprise at bold statements of fierce independence. (I acknowledge, however, that even the speaker of Henley's poem claims to have been bludgeoned by chance.)
When I hear such statements, I certainly believe the person voicing the statement believes what he or she is saying, and I hear the statement with no small amount of admiration because my experience has shown me that I am not the master of my fate and not the captain of my soul. As an employed American citizen, I probably have, on balance, more control (or the illusion thereof) over my life than some other citizens of the world, but nonetheless, proclaiming that one is the master or mistress of one's fate seems like an extraordinary thing to do. It seems to run counter to the facts of life, and, if one is in a superstitious mood, it seems to send an open invitation to life to prove one wrong, sooner rather than later. Hence this poem:
Memo to William Ernest Henley
I'm not the master of my fate,
not even an apprentice. However,
I do have season tickets to watch
the effects of my fate on me;
that's about it. At this very moment,
I have no very big idea of where
my fate is, what it looks like, or what
its plans might be. Invictus, inschmictus,
in other words. I'm not the captain of
my fate. At best, I'm below-decks,
with no access to helm, map, sextent, sky.
The sea, so to speak, seems in charge
of my fate, and something else
seems in charge of the sea. We'll see.
Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom