On this day in 1849, poet, critic, and editor William Ernest Hendley was born. Suffering from tuberculosis since he was 12, Henley was frequently hospitalized. In 1875 his leg was amputated due to complications from the disease. That same year as he recovered from his surgery, he wrote his best known poem Invictus (Latin for “unconquerable”) (1).
The poem’s brilliance revolves around its expression of the indomitable human spirit. Also, the poem’s generalized statements of human anguish –“bludgeonings of chance,” “fell clutch of circumstance” — make it applicable to all manner of human struggles.
One example of the poem’s influence comes from the life of Nelson Mandela (1918-2013). While imprisoned in South Africa for 27 years, Mandela frequently recited the poem to buoy the spirits of his fellow prisoners.
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.
A short poem like Invictus is perfect for memorization. As Mandela demonstrated, it is the kind of poem that can lift your spirits or the spirits of your compatriots when courage is needed to face what Shakespeare called “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”
In his essay “Why We Should Memorize,” Novelist and poet Brad Leithauer talks about a bygone era (from 1875 to 1950) when the memorization and recitation of poetry was a staple of the curriculums of both Britain and the United States:
The rationales for verse recitation were many and sometimes mutually contradictory: to foster a lifelong love of literature; to preserve the finest accomplishments in the language down the generations; to boost self-confidence through a mastery of elocution; to help purge the idioms and accents of lower-class speech; to strengthen the brain through exercise; and so forth.
Leithaurer hopes for a revival of memorization, a process where students literally learn poems “by heart”:
The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen. [N.Y.U Professor Catherine] Robson puts the point succinctly: “If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.” (2)
Today’s Challenge: I Am the Master of the Poem
What are the keys to effective memorization and recitation of poetry? What process would you use to learn a poem by heart? Begin the process of memorizing Invictus. Read and reread the poem. Read it aloud. Write the poem down. Break the poem down into smaller parts. Then, memorize it line by line and stanza by stanza. Decide what key words you want to emphasize and experiment with reciting it using different tones. Finally, use the words of the poem to inspire your goal of memorizing the poem. Don’t give up!
Quotation of the Day: Sure I am this day we are masters of our fate, that the task which has been set before us is not above our strength; that its pangs and toils are not beyond our endurance. As long as we have faith in our own cause and an unconquerable will to win, victory will not be denied us. -Winston Churchill