Sometimes the story behind a poem or article gives it extra point. I was musing on this recently when I read a short biography of W E Henley, whose poems I vaguely remember being instructed to read at school.
If the name is familiar, that is probably because he was the author of the poem Invictus, which inspired Nelson Mandela among others, and which contains at least three well-known quotations. My primary school’s motto was Invicta, which may have been why we were encouraged to read Mr Henley’s work.
The sentiment behind Invictus is more striking – and more painful – when you know something of his life. Henley suffered as a teenager from tuberculosis, which entered his bone and caused the amputation of one of his legs when he was just 19. The surgeon wanted to remove the other foot too, but Henley refused and his foot was saved by Joseph Lister, no less. Henley spent three years in hospital during this treatment, where he wrote a volume of poems, including Invictus.
Robert Louis Stevenson was a friend and later wrote that he based the character of Long John Silver on Henley, a testimony to Henley’s refusal to allow his disability to restrict him or to seek pity for it.
Henley married and had a daughter. Sadly she died at the age of 5, but J M Barrie immortalized her when he created the character of Wendy in Peter Pan. Eventually Henley succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 53.
The next series of the PM Academy will be looking at resilience, the ability to keep going regardless, which is, perhaps, the reason why Henley is in my mind, because Invictus expresses exactly that note of being able to cope whatever is thrown at 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 bludgeoning 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.