We went to watch the movie “Invictus” the other day. It was a inspirational movie of portraying Nelson Mandela, in his first term as the South African President, initiates a venture to unite the apartheid-torn land: enlist the national rugby team on a mission to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup. NM was portrayed as an inspirational but fully human leader. The movie showed his regrets in his personal life without a final explicit reconciliation and strained physical exhaustion certain showed the discretion of a more subtle and matter of fact rather than a more melodramatic approach. The racial theme though is rather preachy and blatant. The part that showed the cell NM was in was particularly sweeping. The name of the movie was from a poem that inspired Mandela to endure the 27 years unjusted imprisonment for the color of his skin.

“Invictus” (meaning “Invincible” in Latin) was a short poem written by William Earnest Henley and published in 1875. The impact of its verses is probably best summed up by this passage from a 2007 Reader’s Digest interview with Mandela:

RD: When you were in prison all those long years on Robben Island and elsewhere, was there something that came back to you, something you had either in your mind, a message or passage from a book, a song, something that helped sustain you and keep up your spirits?

NM: There was a poem by an English poet, W.E. Henley, called “Invictus.” The last lines go: “It matters not how straight the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”

Additionally, from the official Nobel Prize website, there is this aside, amid a passage detailing the impact of literary heritage on Mandela’s life:

At Robben Island, Mandela recited this poem and taught other prisoners these defiant lines; reading such words “puts life in you”, Mandela says.

Henley wrote the piece following a foot amputation due to tubercular infection. He lived until age 53, apparently unbow’d and unafraid, a productive poet, critic and editor. (The one-legged Henley also served as an inspiration for his close friend Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” character Long John Silver.)

Another bizarre note is that the poem’s final verse was used as the last words by Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

Here is the full text of Henley’s “Invictus”:

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 unbow’d.

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.


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