Tuesday 2 February 2010

Invictus Redivivus

My father's taste in poetry was that of an upright Edwardian. He had a personal anthology of poems of moral uplift and patriotic heroism which he delighted in reciting while shaving. Vitai Lampada was of course a favourite, as were The Revenge ('Sink me the ship, Master Gunner - sink her, split her in twain! Fall into the hands of God, not into the hands of Spain!'), The Loss of the Birkenhead and Horatius at the Bridge ('even the ranks of Tuscany could scarce forbear to cheer'). These kind of poems were still to be found in the older anthologies of my childhood, but were soon to fade away... Or were they? The sudden vogue of W.E. Henley's Invictus suggests some at least of these poems have a long afterlife and are liable to flare into renewed vigour and popularity even now. Invictus has given its name to the new Clint Eastwood film about Nelson Mandela, just as the poem, on a scrap of paper, gave strength to the prisoner Mandela. John McCain has also claimed the poem as a source of personal inspiration - as has (gawd help us) Gordon Brown. Why is this? It is a very effective poem of its type, technically well done, full of memorable phrases, with a message that I suspect bordered on the subversive when it was published (1875) since it proclaimed man free from God (gods now plural and dubious), in control of his own destiny and fearing no afterlife or judgment. Now, however, it is one that stiffens the sinews of the individualist captain of his soul, at best in a way that will strengthen a good man (Mandela), at worst as a kind of archaic equivalent of My Way (G***** B****). Either way, it seems it's back. For a while.


  1. Spot on Nige. I've always thought there's more than a touch of the Ayn Rand's to Invictus. I would have respected GB more - well, not much more - if he had cited Vitai Lampada or The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck, and a lot more if he had cited some Kipling. However, snowballs will freeze in hell before GB would mention so embarrassingly imperialist a poet.

    Far better to cite no poetry as a source of personal inspiration, whatever that means, but just say which poems you enjoy or are moved by. But that would be too prosaic for a politico, wouldn't it?

  2. As he's such a 'man of the people' I'm surprised GB didn't list Dizzee Rascal as his favourite poet

  3. Terrible, whiggish, sub-pagan nonsense.

    Just the thought of thing a liberal like McCain would like.

  4. It's a young person's poem, Sir Watkin, and a good one. The wondrously fatalistic stuff is better savoured later in life. Given the tightly directed and controlled world that youth must navigate to-day, it delivers a very inspirational message. At least it beats Catcher in the Rye.

  5. Sorry, that also might explain why people like McCain and Brown look like such tools citing it. They're the aesthetic equivalent of the middle-aged lounge lizard in a toupée trying to chat up bemused young doxies.

  6. I recognize the appeal of "Invictus", but this has always been my favorite Henley poem:

    Madam Life's a piece in bloom
    Death goes dogging everywhere:
    She's the tenant of the room,
    He's the ruffian on the stair.

    You shall see her as a friend,
    You shall bilk him once and twice;
    But he'll trap you in the end,
    And he'll stick you for her price.

    With his kneebones at your chest,
    And his knuckles in your throat,
    You would reason - plead - protest!
    Clutching at her petticoat;

    But she's heard it all before,
    Well she knows you've had your fun,
    Gingerly she gains the door,
    And your little job is done.

    Now, that is a nice summary of reality, in my humble opinion. (But, then again, my favorite poets are Philip Larkin and Edward Thomas, so I am not exactly a glass half full type of person.) I wish that a politician would identify "Madam Life's a piece in bloom" as the poem that inspires them!

    Henley's "In Hospital" sequence is also excellent. "Waiting" is the most often anthologized poem from the sequence; it begins: "A square, squat room (a cellar on promotion)" and ends: "Life is (I think) a blunder and a shame."

    Obviously, Henley had a wicked, non-"Invictus" side to him that is very delightful.

  7. Odd.

    Ecclesiastes struck me like a thunderbolt when I was very young - perhaps eight, certainly no older than ten.

    (A Celtic disposition towards melancholia?)

    I have been struggling (with indifferent sense) to grow out of it ever since.

  8. Ecclesiastes struck me like a thunderbolt when I was very young - perhaps eight

    Might I assume you've gone by the moniker "Sir Watkin" ever since? :-)

    For me it was in my late twenties. I found it a glorious liberation from an unhealthy sense of personal responsibility for everything that happened to and around me in life, not to mention chronic panic over such existential quandries as who would win the next election.

    Perhaps this all just shows that the value of inspirational poems must be measured against the circumstances of the inspirationee. Invictus ennobled the tragic life of a Mandela. The guards at Robson Island, not so much.

  9. memo to self : Name autobiography 'Death goes Dogging'

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  11. i want to puke when people say something is "inspiring" or "inspirational". Like "passionate" (dissected on Ragbag) it's become meaningless through not so much overuse as abuse.

    i would only be impressed if GB said: "I am inspired by poetry, of course..." then recited aloud, Thomas Nashe's Litany in Time of Plague, in a Wagnerian boom, gouging out his fake eye and replacing it with an eyepatch, brandishing a spear, his ravens flying to him, as Ragnarok begins and Fenris roars.

    But i no longer expect such things from politicians.

  12. A lovely image indeed Ghostof - and thank you everybody, especially Mr Bleaney for Madam Life. There's clearly a lot more to Henley - who, it seems, was the original of Long John Silver (he lost half a leg to TB, but his spirits were by no means dimmed).

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