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On this day in 1849, poet, critic, and editor William Ernest Henley 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. (2)
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.”
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 keywords 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! (Speaking and Listening 4 – Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas)
1-The Poetry Foundation. William Ernest Henley. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/william-ernest-henley.
2-Henley, William Ernest. Invictus. 1875. Poets.org. Public Domain. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/invictus.