When the Going Gets Really Tough, Learn a Poem
I learnt this poem by heart ages ago, when I really needed to keep my spirits up in the face of some tough times. Invictus was written in 1875 by the Victorian poet and editor William Ernest Henley (right). In the recent Client Eastwood movie of the same name, Nelson Mandela uses it to inspire the underdog South African rugby team to victory and is shown himself using it during his darkest moments in Robben Island prison. See the clip below the poem. The word ‘Invictus’ is latin for unconquered/unconquerable.
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.
Like the man says, if it’s good enough for Mandela, it’s good enough for me!
Henley was an interesting man too and it’s said that ‘Invictus’ was his response to the amputation of his foot due to tubercular infection and the risk of another amputation later.
I think it’s a great call for us to practise self-mastery in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. And to maintain passion for life and work and to defy giving in, whilst also being gracefully accepting of those things we cannot change – like death itself.
In the movie, the word ‘fate’ is used instead of ‘chance’ at the end of line seven. Maybe that scans a little better, but I think it misses the point, in that the kind of fortitude Henley is expressing comes NOT from believing in fate, or luck, but from being clear that circumstances are largely due to chance and that it is how we respond to circumstances that makes the difference.
And I also love Mandela’s question at the start of this clip: “How do you inspire your team to be better than they think they can be…?”