Tuesday, September 2, 2014


William Ernest 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.

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of the easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

   Probably the worst poem in this collection – though it does have a few redeeming features, and at least two good lines. But poetry does not have to be “good poetry” to be memorable or significant, and we should learn to read for other purposes than forming critical judgements (usually of a negative kind), passing examinations, or achieving the pointless goal of completing the approved canon. Like history, poetry becomes significant when it becomes personal, and for me this poem, unknown before I saw the film that shares its title, achieves both, because the struggle against apartheid occupied a significant portion of my early life.

    The movie (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1057500/) appeared in 2009, directed by Clint Eastwood with Morgan Freeman superb as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon not bad for an American trying to be a South African and playing rugby, a game not all that different from American football, only the players are not allowed to wear cushions and more than one throw of the ball in a sequence is encouraged. It recorded the 1995 Rugby World Cup, hosted in South Africa at the very moment that apartheid was being dismantled, an opportunity brilliantly seized by Mandela to unite whites and blacks and coloured people under a common banner when the alternative might very well have been civil war and bloodshed. As captain François Pienaar, played by Damon, struggles to get his team up to standard, Mandela invites him to Pretoria, and gives him a copy of the poem he kept with him during his years on Robben Island - the eponymous “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley - hoping it will inspire Pienaar and his team as it had inspired him. It works. South Africa lifts the Rugby World Cup. And all is for the best in the best of all possible Hollywood South Africas (to see why it isn't really, click here).

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