I’m not a complete schmuk. I do have empathy for the guy.
Back in the latter quarter of the 19th century, William Ernest Henley, a poet from the mother country, faced double amputation of his lower extremities as tuberculosis raged its ill effects throughout his body. He was all of 25 years old and was sick and tired, and more than a little ticked off at the whole affair. The double amputation would prolong his life, the doctor said. Maybe even save it.
In the end, Henley said thumbs up to only one amputation, no higher than his kneecap. The rest was his own business.
WEH jotted down some lines of verse from his hospital bed which originally carried no title. Invictus (Latin, for “unconquered” or “undefeated”) is how it’s known by readers today, labeled by an editor of English poems some years later.
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.
In short, it’s Henley’s middle finger to Deity, his final word fait accompli epitaph. It goes way past the clenching of a fist in the face of illness; read between the lines is the real Culprit of his hubris. If his pen had teeth they’d’ve been gritted and grinding as they scrawled out the curse he’d put himself under – and as so many do the today.
Jesus warned against such unrepentant madness of heart:
Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.
This anthem-to-self is as close to blasphemy as a soul can come. While it’s the orientation of heart we each come into the world boasting, we’d better not leave the world with it as our motto. There’s a Savior for such as we’re living but there’s no Savior for such when we’re dying.
If Henley died with these words tattooed across his damned soul, he tragically woke up in a covering “night” darker than any redolent of his most fevered nightmares. And, too, he discovered the terrifying truth he was, in the end, “captain” of nothing. He’d discover his life – tragic as it was – was all a ruse, a regrettable charade. The end.
But there’s another testimony. It’s the joyful resignation of a soul set free, who’s laid down arms and bowed to the Captain and Lover of our soul. Dorothea Day captures it with a major revision:
Out of the light that dazzles me,
Bright as the sun from pole to pole,
I thank the God I know to be,
For Christ – the Conqueror of my soul.
Since His the sway of circumstance,
I would not wince nor cry aloud.
Under the rule which men call chance,
My head, with joy, is humbly bowed.
Beyond this place of sin and tears,
That Life with Him and His the Aid,
That, spite the menace of the years,
Keeps, and will keep me unafraid.
I have no fear though straight the gate:
He cleared from punishment the scroll.
Christ is the Master of my fate!
Christ is the Captain of my soul!
Which epitaph does your life employ? Henley lived another 28 years and I wonder if he took these stanzas to the grave, or lived to regret them – and repent. I’m praying for the latter.