By Sonia Tsuruoka
Not much remains to be said about the politics of the written word: scores of historical biographers have examined the literary appetites of revolutionaries, and how what they read determined how they interpreted the world.
Mohandas Gandhi read Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience during his two-month incarceration in South Africa. Martin Luther King, Jr. read W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk from the confines of his Birmingham cell. Liu Xiaobo, a jailed Nobel Peace laureate serving an 11-year sentence for subversion, reportedly read Christian philosophical texts and a popular nonfiction book about the history of Soviet Communism and Russian intellectuals.
Of these, Nelson Mandela’s recitation of William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” during his imprisonment on Robben Island is perhaps most memorable, inspiring generations of jailed activists and an eponymously-titled Hollywood adaptation starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. Indeed, the poem — penned by a tuberculosis-stricken Henley in 1888 — has become something of an intellectual heirloom for activists beating back the tides of institutionalized oppression. Even the widely-used idiomatic expression, “bloody but unbowed,” owes its etymological origins to Henley’s poetic masterpiece, which spans just four stanzas.
Not bad for an originally untitled Victorian-era poem, and one with apolitical beginnings at that. Henley’s poem, first published in Echoes of Life and Death, was only inscribed with the dedication “To R.T.H.B.” (a reference to literary patron Robert Thomas Hamilton Bruce) before being posthumously titled “Invictus” by Arthur Quiller-Couch, an editor of The Oxford Book of English Verse. But how, exactly, did “Invictus” make the leap from the pages of obscurity to the halls of poetic fame? And how did a written work inspired by Henley’s private experiences garner so much public resonance?
After all, “Invictus” isn’t a political poem in the usual sense: it’s meditative rather than militant, assuming the quietness of a prayer rather than the pomp and circumstance of a battle cry. Even more remarkable is the sense that its rhymed quatrains comprise much more than an effortless execution of form, conveying a host of revolutionary philosophical implications. In particular, the lines “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul,” remind us of Henley’s outspoken — and highly controversial — atheism, which remain a source of individual empowerment in a “place of wrath and tears.” Likewise, “whatever gods may be” are rendered obsolete by the poem’s progressive notions of self-determinism, in what should be interpreted as the triumph of human resilience unaided by divine benevolence.
Henley avoids the usual discourse on order and disorder, instead finding an exhilarating freedom in the absence of divine control, not to mention the kind of empowerment one might expect to derive from godlessness. Fate, in this case remains undecided rather than assigned, a series of events governed by free will and its lifelong struggle against the “fell clutch of circumstance.” Henley’s frightening, if awe-inspiring, revelation that no one can or will write our destiny for us explains “Invictus’” unrivaled popularity in political circles — for how else should political activists understand themselves if not as writers of their own history? No wonder innumerable modern revolutionaries, including Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, have cited Henley’s 19th century poem as a “great unifier than knows no frontiers of space or time,” a heartfelt iteration of “struggle and suffering, the bloody unbowed head, and even death, all for the sake of freedom.”
The life of a poem is a strange one, such that an originally untitled, four-stanza work might recover itself from the depths of obscurity to become one of the greatest declarations of political martyrdom. William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” does not necessarily ask us to remember who its author was, and why he wrote what he did, so many years ago — only that he stood “bloody but unbowed,” and that his unconquerable spirit is also our own.
Sonia Tsuruoka is a social media intern at Oxford University Press, and an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Slate Magazine and the JHU News-Letter.