Saturday, March 22, 2014

On 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 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.
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait."

By far, “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley is the BEST poem I have read to date. To be clear, Invictus is the poem on the left in the table above. I read this poem way back when I was in college, and it has left an indelible mark on my psyche since. I have often compared both Henley and Milton. Both had unfortunate lives affected deeply by health. Both had a physical impediment that they had to surmount to make ends meet. But the two poems above are so different in tone and style that I have often wondered how a life of struggle can lead to two so diametrically opposite views of existence.

Come to think of it, John Milton is a much more famous poet than William Ernest Henley. “On His Blindness” is a famous work by Milton and is studied in post-graduate English everywhere as an example of classical poetry. It is written as an Italian sonnet whereas “Invictus” does not lay claim to any technical metre or structure.

Period of Existence
1849 - 1903. Henley was born and lived during the heyday of the British Empire.
1608 - 1674. Milton lived through a very turbulent phase of British history in the 1600s. Cromwell and the Royalists were in a state of flux and though there is no way to determine right and wrong; Milton lived in a period of heavy political turmoil.
Personal Lives
Henley suffered from tuberculosis of the bone which caused his leg to be amputated when he was 20 years old. Despite this handicap, he led a fulfilling life dying when he was aged 53.

Henley worked as a literary reviewer and publisher. He was married only once and had only six children from this marriage.
Milton suffered from blindness since his early 30s. Despite his blindness, Milton did his best to continue his writing and his profession.

Milton was a public servant and a government employee. In a very turbulent political period, he took a stand for republicanism and wrote voraciously about it. He also took a stand on divorce which was considered as a very controversial thing to do in the 1600s. He was divorced twice.
Amputation of his leg due to tuberculosis of the bone when he was 20.
Complete blindness due to unknown causes in his early 30s.
Known for . .
Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.

Perhaps the most famous phrases in Milton’s poem are “who best bear his mild yoke, they serve him best” and “They also serve who only stand and wait”. Both lines set the tone of the poem – that of servitude to god. Though by no standards had Milton an easy life, “On His Blindness” has a distinct defeatist tone to it. Even without going into form, metre and structure, the poem blatantly talks of serving god without expectation and without restraint or doubt. Milton speaks of how one must accept one’s destiny with resignation and wait for god to give one his or her just rewards.

On the other hand, “Invictus” is a war-cry against the gods. It is a rousing cheer of human effort. It is a bugle that has blared in readiness for battle. It is the hoarse cry of the warrior. It is the ultimate challenge thrown to an insurmountable opposition.  The last verse of the poem leaves us with an adrenaline rush. It assures us that we are indeed in charge of our fate. We shape our destiny. We can fight against the odds and we can emerge victorious. One can only imagine Henley in his 20s lying in bed with an amputated foot, determined to start life afresh, rebelling against “god’s plan” and deciding on his future course of action with a stout heart and a readiness for any fate.

Here’s to the Henley in all of us. The part of us that wishes to continue the battle despite the odds. The part of us that shall not give in and break. The part that shall fight on. That last inch of us that shall not perish.

Here’s to Invictus.

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