Aug 24, 2011

I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul

From The Writer's Almanac for August 23rd:  

It's the birthday of English poet William Ernest Henley born in Gloucester in 1849. When he was a young man, he contracted a form of tuberculosis that affects the bones, and he had to have one foot amputated when he was about 17. A few years later, a doctor told him the other one would have to come off as well, but Henley refused to accept the diagnosis, and he sought treatment from the surgical pioneer and founder of antiseptic medicine, Joseph Lister. His treatment took almost two years, and he lived in the hospital for the entire time; although the disease wasn't completely cured, he kept his foot and was able to live in relatively good health for almost 30 years. While he was in the hospital, he began writing poetry about his experiences there, and about the people he met. He published the series in A Book of Verses (1888).

Henley was a gregarious, hearty, red-bearded fellow. He was a close friend of Robert Louis Stevenson, and Stevenson confessed that Treasure Island's Long John Silver was modeled on Henley. His daughter, Margaret, inspired a literary character of her own: Wendy, in J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, was based on the young girl, who was sickly and died at the age of five, long before the play was ever produced. Henley wrote a moving poem, "Margaritae Sorori," after her death. His most famous poem, "Invictus" (1875), is a testament to his irrepressible spirit, and has inspired such diverse figures as Nelson Mandela and Timothy McVeigh.


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 punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

The last two lines say it all. Now, go and read the poem again.
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