Tuesday, July 10, 2018

`Sustained Many a Wavering and Fearful Heart'

Along with around-the-clock drill and other sorts of physical and psychological training, Plebes at the U.S. Naval Academy are required to memorize and recite on demand vast quantities of text, including Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena,” an excerpt from “Citizenship in a Republic,” a speech the former president and assistant secretary of the Navy delivered in 1911. On Sunday, our son was permitted to telephone us for the first time since the start of Plebe Summer, and he mentioned another mandatory feat of memorization: W.E. Henley’s “Invictus,” with its stirring closing lines: “I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul.” We were required to learn and recite the poem in eighth-grade English class, and I remember declaiming it to myself as I walked home from school. The poem makes an unexpected appearance in The Earl of Louisiana (1961), where A.J. Liebling calls it “the Long family anthem”:

“As Earl [Long, brother of Huey, the Kingfish] sat there, one of the assisting speakers, a fellow with a strong voice, grabbed the microphone and declaimed the family battle ode, ‘Invictus.’

“When the man came to the part where it says:

“‘Under the bludgeonings of fate
Ma haid is bloody, but unbowed
“Earl flung up his head like a wild horse and got up like a fighter about to go into a dance to prove he hasn’t been hurt. He called for a show of hands by everybody who was going to vote for him, and I waved both of mine.”

“Invictus” is a barn-burner, a shout of courage and self-reliance, virtues very much out of fashion today. To enhance enjoyment of the poem, it’s useful to know something of Henley’s history. Born in 1849 in Gloucester, England, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the bone at the age of twelve, and several years later his left leg was amputated below the knee. The great Joseph Lister saved his other leg in 1873, when Henley spent a lengthy period of treatment in the Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh. There he started writing poetry, including “Invictus.” Henley went on to edit the Scots Observer and befriend Rudyard Kipling, whose “If—” is comparably rousing. Henley was also a friend of Robert Louis Stevenson, who based Treasure Island’s Long John Silver, in part, on Henley. In W.E. Henley (Constable, 1949), biographer John Connell writes:

“A poem which is so full and accurate an exposition of any man’s tried and constant temper, which is indeed the reflection of a very  large part of his life, cannot be treated as contemptible merely because it is hackneyed. The causes of human suffering are diverse and mysterious; but the individual soul’s response to its challenges is of insistent significance. It is inescapably true that this poem of Henley’s has, in the appalling years since it was first published, supported and sustained many a wavering and fearful heart through lonely hours of pain, humiliation and apparent defeat. A single example: a survivor of the fall of Singapore and of the Bangkok-Moulmein Railway has recorded that he repeated the last verse to himself as he went into captivity.”

Invictus, by the ways, means “invincible.”

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