“In my country, we go to prison first and then become President.”
You Played And Sang A Snatch of Song
By William Earnest Henley (1849 – 1903)
You played and sang a snatch of song,
A song that all-too well we knew;
But whither had flown the ancient wrong;
And was it really I and you?
O, since the end of life’s to live
And pay in pence the common debt,
What should it cost us to forgive
Whose daily task is to forget?
You babbled in the well-known voice –
Not new, not new the words you said.
You touched me off that famous poise,
That old effect, of neck and head.
Dear, was it really you and I?
In truth the riddle’s ill to read,
So many are the deaths we die
Before we can be dead indeed.
It was the hundredth anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birthday this week. For a man with such eloquence of speech and writing, I have been surprised that I have yet to find any poetry as part of his legacy. Mandela related many times that his favorite poem was Invictus by William Earnest Henley, the words a personal prayer and inspiration during his 27 years in prison.
Henley had a long and productive literary and publishing career for a man that died relatively young. Henley was a poet, a literary critic, an editor of journals and newspapers and a writer, who was highly influential in late 19th century English literature.
Invictus is Henley’s most famous poem. The circumstances surrounding its creation fueled by his own personal trials. Henley wrote it from a hospital bed, while seeking treatments over a three year period to save his remaining leg from amputation as a result of complications from tuberculosis. Henley suffered under the weight of TB from the age of 12 onward, the disease infecting his bones which resulted in the amputation of his left leg below the knee in 1868. Henley refused to take the advice of doctors to remove his remaining leg to save his life, and spent three years undergoing treatments in a London hospital in his early 20’s. Although the treatments proved only partially successful, and he would suffer from complications from TB for his entire life, it did not stop him from living a robust and colorful life. It was during his three year confinement to the hospital that Henley wrote the poem, initially untitled, published with a group of poems known only as “Hospital Poems.” The poem would become known as Invictus well after his death, the title appointed by an editor of anthology of English poetry many years later.
Henley’s suffering from TB did not diminish his life experience. Following the publication of Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that the character of Long John Silver was inspired by his friend Henley. Stevenson described Henley as “… a great, glowing, massive-shouldered fellow with a big red beard and a crutch; jovial, astoundingly clever, and with a laugh that rolled like music; he had an unimaginable fire and vitality; he swept one off one’s feet.” Stevenson wrote, “… it was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver … the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you.”
I wonder whether Henley ever contemplated how enduring his legacy would become while he penned those lines, or how powerful those words would be to inspire others to overcome hardship and injustice? Nelson Mandela, by strength of his inner character, lived to see a better world and his nation freed from the injustice and moral failure of apartheid. Mandela’s entire life was an inspiration to the world, that leadership based on a reasoned goal of justice and equality will ultimately prevail. One of my favorite sayings of a friend of mine is: “Justice is just us.”
So, what will it be, just you and me, equal and united or separate and divided? I’ll take equal and united…
by William Earnest Henley
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.