Monday, September 18, 2017


Out of the night that covers me
Black as the Pit from pole to pole . . .

I was about ten years old when I had to memorize William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” for a fifth grade class. My father had insisted on this 1875 poem, and I resented it mightily. He evidently thought the fearless, defiant, stiff-upper-lip verses (“Invictus” is Latin for “unconquered”), written in the face of debilitating illness, was just the thing to inspire a little boy struggling with total deafness. (I didn’t need to be reminded of that.)

Besides, “It matters not how strait the gate . . . “ “In the fell clutch of circumstance
. . .” Whatever did those phrases mean? I was just too young.

As I grew older, I adopted the cynical sensibility of postmodernism and dismissed the verses as mawkish and self-dramatizing, “the most widely known bad poem in English,” as the middlebrow critic John Ciardi declared. To my mind it was a garish Thomas Kinkade word painting for rustic living rooms. It provided Timothy McVeigh’s last words before his execution. 

Still, Nelson Mandela loved it and recited it to his fellow inmates on Robben Island. Clint Eastwood made a pretty fair movie out of that story (I wish I could have heard Morgan Freeman’s rendition of the poem). It helped John McCain survive a North Vietnamese prison. Prince Harry created an Olympics for wounded soldiers and called it “the Invictus Games.”

To modern critics “Invictus” has more than pop-cultural legs. They recognize that with farsighted realism Henley broke the florid Victorian mold of spiritual poetry, helping open the road for the fierce anger of World War I poets, soldiers trapped in circumstances not of their own making.

When I finally reread “Invictus,” a few days after being diagnosed with macular degeneration—possible blindness is a terrifying prospect for a deaf person—I cried. My dad was smart. I think he knew that someday I would  appreciate “Invictus” because I would need to.

I never understood that gift until now.

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