Inspiration’s essential, whether you’re running up a hill , or wondering – whilst in the throes of an incapacitating injury or illness – if you’ll ever be able to exercise again.
I discovered the poem “Invictus” via a showy-off conversation about inspirational verse with a manager I was working for on a temporary assignment (like you do).
The oft-quoted lines are: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul”.
But for me, the knowledge that the poem was written during Victorian times brought to mind the idea of the “stiff upper lip” – so I tended to think, “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”
I was humbled to discover the poem was, in fact, written while the author was recovering in hospital – and for a long time it didn’t even have a name.
William Ernest Henley suffered complications connected with tuberculosis from the age of 12 –and ended up needing his leg to be amputated just below the knee, in his mid-20s.
Determined not to lose his other foot, he underwent a number of operations, described as “radical” – and retained his limb.
Like me, he would have been no stranger to hobbling!
His friend, “Treasure Island” author Robert Louis Stephenson, was inspired by him as a person.
In a letter to Henley, Stephenson told him: “I will now make a confession. 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”.
Henley’s message of hope continued to have a notable impact in the 20th Century.
Nelson Mandela drew on it at Robben Island prison, where he recited the verse to his fellow inmates – and to himself.
Morgan Freeman, who played Mandela in the 2009 film “Invictus”, told a reporter: “That poem was his favourite… When he lost courage, when he felt like just giving up — just lie down and not get up again — he would recite it. And it would give him what he needed to keep going.”
Here then, are the words Nelson Mandela would say:
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.