The Unconquered

Posted on Saturday, August 14, 2010 in Leadership

“Invictus” (Latin for “unconquered) is a short poem written in 1875 by the English poet William Ernest Henley (1849-1903). The poem appears in the recent film Invictus, which is a look at the life of Nelson Mandela after the fall of apartheid in South Africa, during his term as president, when he campaigned to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup event as an opportunity to unite his countrymen.

The title comes from the fact that Mandela had the poem written on a scrap of paper in his prison cell while he was incarcerated. In the movie, Mandela gives the “Invictus” poem to his national rugby team’s captain Francois Pienaar before the start of the Rugby World Cup.

The real story of the poem began when, at the age of 12, Henley became a victim of tuberculosis of the bone. A few years later the disease progressed to his foot, and physicians announced that the only way to save his life was to amputate directly below the knee. It was amputated at the age of 25.

In 1867 he successfully passed the Oxford local examination as a senior student. Later, in 1875 he wrote the “Invictus” poem from a hospital bed. Despite his disability, he survived with one foot intact and led an active life until his death at the age of 53.

We may not have been imprisoned like Mandela or have lost a foot like Henley, but all of us have had or will have tragedies and experience suffering in life. They come with the territory of being human. We will experience isolation, abandonment, sadness, illness, and getting old. There is nothing we can do to stop these things from unfolding.

But we have infinite choice about how to respond. The freedom to choose is in our control. We can respond with courage, resilience, and fortitude. No one is fated to remain in suffering. Our response is what gives meaning, texture, and vitality to life, and a life well responded to gives courage to others. In what ways are you “the captain of your soul?”

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.

— William Ernest Henley

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