I’m not a big one for poetry. I have nothing against it mind, and I have been known to write a little of it from time to time – not that I’ve ever published it. (I have more self-respect than that :-)) But I’ve never really delved into it much, although I have occasionally discovered a poem here and there that strikes a chord (who can forget the haunting W.H. Auden poem from Four Weddings and a Funeral?). I had another of those moments recently, when I watched, rather belatedly, the movie Invictus.
The film is about the first years of Mandela’s presidency as South Africa emerged from the apartheid era, when mistrust, division, race-hatred, violence and civil war threatened a country already struggling to feed its poor. As he guides his country towards reconciliation and forgiveness, Mandela recognises how crucial a part the national rugby team could play in the upcoming World Cup. I found the film interesting and entertaining (even if the rugby game ran a little long) but most of all, I became engrossed in the portrayal of Mandela. If ever a man was born to play a part, it was Morgan Freeman with Nelson Mandela.
On the surface, this film appears to be about a rugby team and an against-the-odds win in the World Cup. But it isn’t. It’s about Mandela, how he approached problems, how he became the man we know today. And this story is told through the lines of a single poem, quoted only once in the film. I looked it up afterwards – as I’m sure did many others.
William Earnest Henley was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the bone when he was just twelve, and by the age of 25, had the leg amputated. He wrote Invictus from his hospital bed. Invictus is the latin for unconquerable.
In his autobiography, Mandela talks about how important this poem was to him, but in the years since I read it, I’d forgotten all about it. Now, reading it again, I can see how true it is – and it completely backs up a belief I’ve always held: that people are always much stronger than they realise. And they often don’t discover this until they are overwhelmed by trouble and misery. Mandela spent 27 years in prison and it’s entirely possible that those years made him the man we see today, despite the misery he suffered. Or perhaps because of it.
Either way, for all my friends who have recently suffered – here’s the poem that inspired him so. It inspires me too.
by William Earnest 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.
- Reconciliation: Mandela’s Miracle (variety.com)
- Freeman to receive American Film Institute honor (omg.yahoo.com)
- Robert Hormats: Mandela’s Legacy (huffingtonpost.com)