Invictus, Poem by William Ernest Henley

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom


Tata Madiba Mandela


William Ernest Henley

With the passing of Nelson Mandela or “Madiba”, the familiar name most used by South Africans ( “Madiba” is derived from the clan that Mandela belonged to. It was taken from  the name of an 18th century Transkei chief) , I am reminded of William Ernest Henley’s poem ‘Invictus’ which he first published  in 1875 in a book entitled Life and Death. ‘Invictus’ is latin for “unconquered or undefeated”. It was a poem that inspired and brought strength to Madiba while he was in prison on Robben Island in South Africa for 27 years. He wrote it on a scrap of paper and every time he was feeling like giving up and giving into his sadness and despair, he would read it.It inspired him to not let hate and revenge eat up his heart and soul and showed him that forgiving was more uplifting than revenge.

invictus movieInvictus was also the title of a 2009 Clint Eastwood film starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman. It tells the story of  the South African rugby team whom Mandela inspires to win the World Championship by sharing his love the poem Invictus.

I thought it would be fitting to print this poem again upon the passing of this noble giant who inspired so many as had done Martin Luther King before him. This poem also later served Mandela well when he became leader of South Africa.  He was not only able to break the shackles of apartheid to become his country’s first native African president but he was also able to break the barriers of class and protocol to become the most beloved leader of his African nation. Mandela was also known as ‘Tata’ (in the language of Mandela’s Xhosa tribe, the word simply means “father”) and South Africa’s media would frequently use it to speak about their benevolent leader. He made people forget his race which was probably his biggest victory of all. He wanted everyone to be considered the same in order to form a better union where all could benefit for the common good. Here is a moving scene in the movie Invictus in which Morgan Freeman reads part of the poem:


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. 

This poem has also been translated in many languages including French. Here is a beautiful rendition:
Dans les ténèbres qui m’enserrent
Noires comme un puits où l’on se noie
Je rends grâce aux dieux, quels qu’ils soient
Pour mon âme invincible et fière.Dans de cruelles circonstances
Je n’ai ni gémi ni pleuré
Meurtri par cette existence
Je suis debout, bien que blessé.En ce lieu de colère et de pleurs
Se profile l’ombre de la Mort
Je ne sais ce que me réserve le sort
Mais je suis, et je resterai sans peur.Aussi étroit soit le chemin
Nombreux, les châtiments infâmes
Je suis le maître de mon destin
Je suis le capitaine de mon âme.William Ernest Henley (1843-1903)
And then there’s the little known song by Kent O’Shea (music and lyrics) and Anton Ressel (lyrics)  inspired by Nelson Mandela. Lyrics: Kent O’Shea & Anton Ressel. Composer: Kent O’Shea. Produced by Richard Black – published by Ricoshay Music. In this YouTube video we see his life retraced:
And Madiba’s wish…the World in Union. As many of us are about to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth who became the beloved leader of the Christian world, it should inspire us even more to live out Madiba’s legacy and live the world as one! Here are 2 renditions of this beautiful song…the first from the 2003 Rugby Union World Cup in Australia with Harry Adkins leading, accompanied by David Bruce and Alex Leon all of the Sydney Children’s Choir. And the 2nd rendition is with various artists. Very moving indeed!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s