Kids probably mocked him with something like “Billy One-Leg.” Already missing a lower limb, William Henley sat in another hospital bed as the doctors struggled to save his remaining leg. Asking for paper and a pen, he scribbled notes that would become a life-vest for the dispirited and a refuge for the exhausted.
We all yearn to make our mark — a legacy that will etch firmly into history. High achievers rarely rest on their laurels but insist on carving out the next breakthrough, start up or best-seller. Most are silent during the tough times. Thankfully, one man resisted despair and scratched these four stanzas on a notepad:
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.
Millions stand taller upon hearing these opening thoughts. Those four lines squeeze bravery and dignity out of tired souls who feel neglected and betrayed. Even terrorists (Oklahoma City; New Zealand) dare to subvert the honor of this poem to their delusional causes.
One dull commentator said this Invictus was the author’s “fifteen minutes of fame” and that, compared to his contemporaries, he produced no other recognizable products. That’s like saying, “What have you done for me lately?” to the inventor of the wheel, fire or the airplane. The hospital patient continued:
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody but unbowed.
Deciding to memorize Henley’s Invictus, I highlighted the first line of each section and created a gesture or visual image that would unfreeze my memory if needed. The power of this poem transported me as I cranked along — happy that my brain still worked. The piece outlines a calm defiance during the darkest of valleys in life. It elevates courage and resolve — no matter the pain, unfairness or outcome.
Outdoors one evening, my fire pit crackled, as I succeeded with the first and last parts of this unconquerable poem. My brain ran out of steam and bogged down on the third stanza — wrath, tears, horror; menace of the years. I read that Robert Louis Stevenson used Henley as the inspiration for his Long John Silver character in Treasure Island. Was it an honor? Or, did it remind him of childhood bullies? Still, the third part gave me trouble.
Hopelessly stalled, I imagined Billy propped up in his hospital bed with salty drops running down his cheeks and hitting the fresh ink on his lap. My past tears over lost clients or romance or money seemed trivial. Still failing to recall his words, I spotted the silhouette of a large buck grazing on the ridge behind my home. Stirring the fire and squinting, I made out impressive antlers and a slow amble through the brush. The animal was relaxed and calm. That’s when the third stanza fell into place:
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.
He lost a leg and a child and still mustered the energy to capture his humanity — a gift for men and women who chose to endure — to never give up.
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.
This was no quarter hour of fame but rather a monument in the historical record. Few quote lines from Treasure Island. Most recognize and even recite master of my fate; captain of my soul.
Yes, Invictus! William Ernest Henley found his place in history and lived it well.
Rick Griggs is a former Intel Corp. training manager and inventor of the rolestorming creativity tool. He runs the 10-month Leadership Mastery Academy. email@example.com or 970-690-7327.