I was about thirteen when I first read Invictus, by William Ernest Henley, it immediately became my most favorite piece of prose and has remained near the top of my list of favorite things to read and feel, even today over five decades later. I was quite upset when Timothy McVeigh chose to recite that beautiful poem as his last words on the day that a needle was inserted into his vein to deliver, via the attached tubes, drugs to stop his heart stopping his life in exchange for the lives of one hundred sixty eight men, women and children whose lives he stole and for the injuries to eight hundred more occupants of the federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and for the families he destroyed.
The words of Invictus recited by a heroic figure on his or her death bed would seem appropriate, but just the thought of a mass murderer thinking his life could be reflected in those words simply sickens me.
Henley was a heroic figure. At the age of twelve he was stricken by Tuberculosis of the bone and at age seventeen, in order to save his life, it was necessary to amputate his leg just below his knee. Henley lived in England, had he lived in the United States, he would have joined the untold number of young men who lost limbs as a result of battlefield action during the American Civil War that had just ended.
Just like the Americans who had to adjust, Henley led an active life until he died at age fifty-three in 1903, the year my father was born. He was a man so full of vitality that he inspired his friends with his active lifestyle, even though his life was interrupted for often and sometimes long stints in the hospital. His friend, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote to him after the publication of Treasure Island and said:
"I will now make a confession. It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver...the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you".
For those of you that may have never read Invictus, I will share the beautiful words and deepest thoughts of a beautiful man who chose to share them with the world.
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 truth, life in general is simply a walk through hell. This thing we call life and cling to so stingily is just years of sadness, tears, and intense sorrow. We go through life wanting what we can never acquire and wanting to hold a position we can never attain. We harm others as we scramble after the same limited rewards.
Love is a very elusive prize but a very common emotion. Each of us crave love at some level. We each have our own definition of exactly what love is. Love can be a dangerous thing that involves sharing the most intimate thoughts, words, and actions with others and risking hurt if that love is unrequited or the mutual emotion dies. But, without love, life would be nothing. While love could be fleeting, much of the time it is lasting, everything else, however, is definitely fleeting. Those material things we clamor after, many times stepping on friends and foes alike will remain here in the material world when our time here is expired, but love will follow us beyond the grave.
Henley, through his life as well as his words gives us a blueprint for how to live, and die. No matter how badly the world beats us up, we still have the opportunity, if we take it, to stand tall, shake our fists, and yell to the world and to the heavens that we may have been beaten but we did not break and that what ever punishment or reward awaits us at the next stage of life, we earned by living a life of virtue and avoiding the moral corruptions that surround and tempt us constantly and ignoring the taunts of others. We can all be heroes if we do not waver and as we pass from here to there we can have on our lips that proclamation best expressed in the last two lines of Invictus.
When I read the words of Invictus, my thoughts have a tendency to drift to the Jews, and others, who were subjected to the most unthinkable horrors known to the modern world during the Holocaust Period of Nazi Germany, and yet held true to who they were and did not give up their personhood, and in the end, those who survived, could stand, for themselves as well as those who had their lives snuffed out by the animals who established and ran the camps, bloodied but unbowed, victorious against those that sought to destroy them.
Tim McVeigh had no right to utter those words, he was no hero, he destroyed life. He appointed himself the arbiter of what was right and what was wrong, then became the executioner of those he judged to be wrong.
Those who walked out of the death camps, those who gave their lives or limbs on battlefields, those who stood against hatred and violence were heroes and can claim the message of Henley’s words as their own.