Masters of our souls

Looking for winter inspiration
Looking for winter inspiration

In Stephen Frears’ award-winning film ‘Philomena’, there’s a beautifully funny scene where ‘Phil’ and cynical journalist Martin are at the airport being taken to their plane on a mobility vehicle thanks to Phil’s titanium hip. A captive listener on the buggy, Martin is forced to endure Phil’s detailed resume of the romantic novel she’s just been reading, ‘The Slipper and the Horseshoe’. Triumphantly recounting the ending, where the hero rejects the duchess and her diamonds for the humble stable girl and true love, she says:

‘Well I didn’t see that coming Martin, not in a million years.’

Since I started this blog in 2015 there have been quite a few Philomena moments. As 2017 gets under way, we find ourselves in the middle of huge societal changes we never saw coming, where the word ‘unpredictable’ has acquired new resonance and the word ‘future’ more often than not preceded by the adjective ‘uncertain’. As the wind of change swirls around the globe and night approaches black as the pit from pole to pole, there’s an urge to roll a big boulder across the entrance to the family cave and pray there are no sabre-tooth tigers sleeping in the shadows at the back.  (See Nancy Babcock’s blog on the current ‘hygge’ craze:  )

I’m reminded of the famous 1995 interview with Woody Allen on French television. Bernard Pivot, King of French Culture, posed the question:

‘If you were reincarnated as a plant, tree or animal, what would you choose?’

Woody fidgeted and wrung his hands.

‘A sponge.’

The bushy eyebrows of Pivot shot up. Woody shrugged.

‘A sponge,’ he said, ‘has no enemies’.

I hear you, Woody. The notion of an inert sponge-like existence in the calm waters of a tropical lagoon is not looking bad at the moment. Alternatively, a bit of cocooning in the family cave sounds appealing. Here we can turn to traditional sources of renewal and inspiration: the clan artist, painting a few Matisse-like deer on the wall, the clan bard, strumming lyrical ballads on his mammoth jawbone, singing about hosts of golden daffodils and answers blowing in the wind, and of course the story-teller, inviting us to sit upon the ground and weep while he tells sad stories of the death of kings. The soothsayer obviously will have got the boot for failing to read the entrails correctly, but we could end the soirée by turning to the bearded philosopher for wise counsel. The drawback is that instead of providing answers he may well fall back on the sneaky philosopher’s trick of asking us questions instead. The sort of stuff that gets the heckler at the back of the cave yelling ‘Give us break, mate, yer doin’ our heads in.’ Stuff like Who are we? How have we become who we are? And trickiest of all, What about the future? Are we mere pawns swept along on the current of an indifferent Destiny? Perhaps it’s time to all join hands and sing ‘Que sera sera’. Wait, it’s that man at the back again, or maybe a woman, they’re getting a bit uppity since they invented that round thing with spokes, what’s she saying? Something about being the master of her fate?

In The Oxford Book of English Verse, wedged between offerings from the Hon. Emily Lawless and Sir Edmund Gosse, are the following lines:

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.

So begins a poem by William Ernest Henley. His name many not ring many bells but the four stanzas he wrote in 1875 have become a cultural touchstone for those facing personal adversity (‘My head is bloody but unbow’d’), as well as those engaged in a wider struggle for the right to liberty when their freedoms are under attack.

"The Oxford Book of English Verse", prize awarded to the author at school, prize and author now looking a bit battered
“The Oxford Book of English Verse”,
prize awarded to the author at school, prize and author now looking a bit battered

Henley was 25 when he wrote the poem. Since adolescence, he had suffered from a form of tuberculosis which affected the bones in his legs. In 1868 the lower left leg was amputated and over the next few years his health deteriorated to the point where he was told his right foot would have to go as well. Henley took the decision to consult pioneering surgeon Joseph Lister, who, after several interventions, managed to save the foot. It was the end of an eight-year ordeal. While recovering from the final operation, Henley wrote a series of ‘hospital poems’, one of which, quoted above, was included by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in his seminal anthology, The Oxford Book of English Verse.  Quiller-Couch gave it the title Invictus: Unconquered.

In September 1941, two years after World War Two was declared, Britain was emerging from the nightmare of the Blitz in which 41 000 civilians died and an estimated 139 000 were wounded. Winston Churchill told the House of Commons: ‘…a year ago our position looked forlorn, and well-nigh desperate, to all eyes but our own. Today we may say aloud before an awe-struck world, ‘We are still masters of our fate. We still are captain of our souls.'”

He was referring to the last stanza of Henley’s poem:

I am the master of my fate

I am the captain of my soul.

Around the same time as Churchill was delivering his speech, a 23-year-old Nelson Mandela was setting out to study law in Johannesburg. He went on to join the African National Congress, became involved in political activism, was arrested, and began his 27-year-long imprisonment in 1963. The rest, as they say, is history.

The title of Henley’s poem was borrowed by Clint Eastwood for his 2009 film about Mandela and his relationship with François Pienaar, captain of the all-white (with one exception) South African rugby team, the Springboks. In the film we see recently-elected President Mandela trying to convince his countrymen that the only way forward is through reconciliation and forgiveness. Seeing a chance to use a famous sporting event to create a feeling of unity for his new ‘rainbow’ nation, he convinces the Springbok captain to work with him, to redeem his team’s flagging reputation and aim for victory against overwhelming odds in the forthcoming 1995 Rugby World Cup.

He tells him:

‘On Robben Island, when things were very hard, I found inspiration in a poem…A Victorian poem. Just words. But they helped me to stand when all I wanted was to lie down’.

The poem is Invictus and he gives a copy to Pienaar.

‘This helped me, many times,’ he says. ‘Perhaps it will help you, too.’ 

While much of the film is based on true events, there are claims that Mandela’s gift was not a copy of Henley’s poem, but of a speech given by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910, ‘Citizenship in a Republic’, part of which became known as ‘The Man in the Arena’:

‘It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.’

Henley or Roosevelt, does it matter? The point being made is the importance of inspiration, and how inspiration can feed our beliefs. In this case Mandela was talking about the conviction that we all have some control over our destiny, a conviction which spurs us to get up when all we want to do is lie down. Roosevelt’s speech inspires, Invictus inspires. It is a matter of record that, during his incarceration on Robben Island, Mandela read Henley’s poem to his fellow prisoners and, in ‘the Robben Island Bible’ ( i.e. The Complete Works of Shakespeare which had been smuggled inside by another prisoner), he marked the following lines from Julius Caesar:

‘Cowards die many times before their deaths/The valiant never taste of death but once/Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,/It seems to me most strange that men should fear’.

It’s tempting at times to believe our fate is ‘in the lap of the gods’, that we are simply the helpless victims of circumstance. Or we can turn to the visionary world of artists, musicians and writers whose insights often help us to see our condition from a different perspective.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced or cried aloud

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody but unbow’d


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.

Henley, Mandela and Churchill were all pretty thoroughly bludgeoned by chance. Were they the masters of their fate? These three remarkable men were driven by the same conviction: Fate had perhaps dealt the cards, but it was up to them to play the hand. And, more importantly, in the fell clutch of circumstance, their minds were free, free to believe in the invincibility of the human spirit. They were indeed the captains of their souls.



18 thoughts on “Masters of our souls”

  1. Merci une fois encore pour le plaisir de lire tes lignes
    et de m’avoir permis de lire le(s) blogs de Nancy.
    Comme je le lui écris, vous êtes toutes les deux trop savantes pour que je me permette de faire des commentaires mais je lis avec gourmandise vos textes. MERCI

    1. Chère Miette, ravie ravie que tu lises le blog, et que cela te fait plaisir. Et voilà, cela te permet de reconnecter avec Nancy! Hurray!
      Je sais que tu as plein de morceaux musicaux qui t’inspirent (au fait, tu as toujours ton abonnement au Capitole?) et je suis sûre que tu dois avoir en tête des poèmes qui t’inspirent aussi …j’aimerais bien les connaitre 😉

  2. Thank you, Laurette, for that wonderful entry. The discussion got me thinking about the poets drilled into us at school. No Invictus for us, unfortunately, but I’ll never forget how taken I was with Shakespeare, and the pressure I imposed on my siblings to memorise the sonnets with me. That rhythm became so engrained that I often have to fight the impulse to follow the tick, tick, tick of that metronome in my head as I write prose.

    1. Thanks so much, Anita. I’m sure that what’s being said about poetry in these comments refers to a common experience for many of us. What an image, the tick tick tick of Shakespeare’s sonnets in your head as you write your beautiful prose, two different kinds of music, both part of your creative imagnation. Wonderful! xxx

      1. I have been thinking about the universality of poetry and how it touches our inner being – lets call that our souls. Thinking of Churchill using the quote from’ Invictus’, I remembered Ronald Reagan quoting from another poem when he spoke to the American nation after the loss of the space shuttle Challenger in 1984. He only used a few of the poem’s words. saying about the astronauts “they slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God” but I think the whole poem bears reproducing. It was written by a 19 year old American airman who joined the RAF during WW2 and died in his Spitfire before his 20th birthday. He enclosed it in a letter to his parents. His name was John Gillespie Magee and if he could write such a poem aged 19 what might he have contributed to the poetry lexicon had he lived!

        Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
        And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings:
        Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
        Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
        You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
        High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there.
        I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and and flung
        My eager craft through footless halls of air…
        Up, up the long delirious burning blue
        I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
        Where never lark or ever eagle flew-
        And while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
        The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
        Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

        Now whilst we may never get to fly an plane, the eventual fate of all of us is to slip the surly bonds of earth. That’s what I mean by the universality of poetry. In it we see ourselves.

        1. Well Elizabeth, this discussion reminds me that you studied philosophy as well as French…thank you so much for your thoughts, for sharing that story and the wonderful poem, no need to tell you I’m blubbing as I read….

  3. Oh my, Laurette–What a history lesson via literature you’ve given–so interesting! I’d love to know what Churchill and Mandela would say about this current situation in the U.S., including how exactly we got here, where we’ve been taken over by a certifiable lunatic. I would normally say that I wish I could be around 50 years from now to read what the history books (would there even be books at that point?) have to say, but it’s highly questionable that the Earth will survive the reign of insanity imposed by the newly installed American Emperor.

    I’m going back into hygge mode to stay for the duration–I’m sure Churchill and Mandela would not approve.

    Great post, and thanks for the linked mention!

    1. Thank you dear Nancy for comment, yes, history, literature, feel I need a second life just to pursue all the amazing research possibilities now available to us without going to the library as in olden times. Just a click of the mouse and it’s all there. What riches (is there a blog in that?) Fascinating idea, to be able to see how future generations view what’s going on now. Of course a lot will depend what happens next. And, as you say, will there even be books? (I hope so, I hope so). Enjoy your hygge retreat, think that both Churchill and Mandela would say ‘ you are the captain of your Fate, treat yourself to a bit of hygge or whatever you fancy, girl’. Don’t forget, Churchill had his glass(es) of whisky/brandy/champagne (“I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me” ), and Mandela drily referred to his 27 years in prison as ‘a 27 year holiday’, if I remember correctly(?) xxx

  4. I always enjoy your blogs Laurette but this one was extra special! I came late to the poem Invictus, in fact because of the film of the same name which you mention. However I have always known Winston Churchill’s speech which references it and assumed it was one of Churchill’ s own very well turned phrases – and he certainly had a few of those! As to Woody Allen’ s sponge answer, well so Woody and so very un French! No doubt the interviewer was expecting something far more grandiloquent. However if we were all without enemies how wonderful would it be. Hail to the sponges – and of course to Caesar in the Shakespearean quote.

    1. Thank you so much chère amie for your comment. What, they didn’t have you learning ‘Invictus’ by heart at school? And in Yorkshire’s capital??? Did you enjoy the film by the way, film buff that you are? I’ve read some reviews which pan it, including some which say it wasn’t a good ‘rugby’ film… ;-( Yes, Winnie did have some well-turned phrases. As for Woody, I’m constantly looking up his quotes just to get a bit of a humorous perspective on things. Yes, as you said, so un-French. In the reply to Paulette’s comment I give the link if you fancy a laugh. Are you au courant with the famous Proustian questionnaire?
      Ave Caesar, sponges, humour and anything that makes life living! xxx

      1. No we didn’t have to learn Invictus at my York grammar school! However I can still, after more than 60 years, quote the main speech from all the Shakespeare plays I studied and which we were required to learn! Anyone for “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players…” Time for an exit here!

          1. At the time I guess I just thought it was an intellectual challenge set by teachers to try and test us – in every meaning of the word. It probably was just that initially but I can’t even begin to describe the enormous pleasure I have derived over the years from being able to call to mind at will such wonderful words and well honed phrases. Here’s a favourite from way back:
            “And up spake brave Horatius, the captain of the gate,
            To every man upon this earth death commeth soon or late,
            And how can man die better than when facing fearful odds
            For the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his gods?”
            I don’t know why I find that so moving as I am neither warlike nor religious but I do!

      2. Forgot to mention that I loved the film as did my sports hating husband. Maybe that’s because the film was only tangentially about rugby, a point obviously missed by some critics!

        1. Thanks for brave Horatius, Liz, fine lines, now that was one I didn’t know, so for anyone else like me, just checked it and it’s by Macaulay, better known for his essays. As you say, enormous pleasure when we recall such poems and the fact we’ve remembered them maybe means that they’ve become a part of us, helping to shape the way we look at the world so that even if we’re not warlike or religious we are still moved by stories of human courage, the music of the verse etc.

  5. Only Woody Allen would say a sponge. I’ll be smiling all day. It’s such a brilliant answer: it has no enemies. What a great, thoughtful post from you my friend.

    Happy weekend to you.


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