Invictus: To Tame the Unconquerable

Armstrong Clan Motto: ‘I Remain Unconquered’
My recent post (An Unconquerable Spirit) has me thinking of a poem that has ever inspired me. Invictus was penned in 1875 by the English poet William Ernest Henley.  As an adolescent Henley was afflicted with tuberculous osteomyelitis (tuberculosis of bone) in his lower extremities.  He was told that both his legs would need to be amputated below the knees to save his life. He agreed to amputation of the left leg at 12 but repeatedly refused the second amputation. He spent much of his early life hospitalized and chronically ill. Eventually with the assistance of Dr. Joseph Lister, the father of antiseptic surgery, Henley was able to recover and enjoy a vigorous life until a fall from a railway carriage induced a relapse of his tuberculosis and ultimately his death at 54.  

Though plagued by ill-health and disability from an early age, Henley was highly acclaimed and reasonably successful in his life. Henley’s theology was that of an agnostic; he was much more interested in the humanist movement than in organized religion or Christianity. And, in an era were people looked to God for rescue, he maintained that the harnessing the power within was sufficient to tackle anything that life could throw at you. 

Invictus is a Latin term for unconquerable, unvanquished or undefeated. Henley’s poem is a window into his own spirit of invictus that was shaped by his irrepressible determination and self-confidence. Without doubt, this is part of what gave Henley the willpower to overcome years of illness, despair, and misfortune.  Even a small measure of his spirit of invictus would serve us all very well. 
William Ernest Henley (1849-1903)

Invictus

William Ernest Henley

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.
– – – –
There is a certain machismo and that comes from the ‘never surrender and never back down’ mentality that embodies Invictus. I suppose that in this regard Henley was generations ahead of his time–the era of self-help is firmly ensconced today. But the precosciousness of Henley’s popular poem raised some eyebrows in the Christian communities of his time. Enter Orson F. Whitney. Born in Salt Lake City, he was a journalist, historian, poet, academic and politician. He also served as an apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As a devout disciple of Jesus Christ, he took issue with the spirit of invictus that suggested that a ‘do it yourself’ mentality was all men really needed.  His poetic rebuttal,The Soul’s Captain, is masterful. 
Orson F. Whitney (1855-1931)
The Soul’s Captain
ORSON F. WHITNEY

Art thou in truth? Then what of Him
Who bought thee with His blood?
Who plunged into devouring seas
And snatched thee from the flood,

Who bore for all our fallen race
What none but Him could bear–
That God who died that man might live
And endless glory share.

Of what avail thy vaunted strength
Apart from His vast might?
Pray that His light may pierce the gloom
That thou mayest see aright.

Men are as bubbles on the wave,
As leaves upon the tree,
Thou, captain of thy soul! Forsooth,
Who gave that place to thee?

Free will is thine- free agency,
To wield for right or wrong;
But thou must answer unto Him
To whom all souls belong.

Bend to the dust that “head unbowed,”
Small part of life’s great whole,
And see in Him and Him alone,
The captain of thy soul.

– – – –

There is no doubt that the spirit of invictus embodies a courage and determination that is valuable in taking on the world, and the challenges it will throw our way.  But to place all our hopes and dreams in self is risky. Most people are simply not prepared for disappointment and failure on the scale invoked by the consistency of our own failings. Though time teaches us to expect others to disappoint us, we never get over our ability to disappoint ourselves. To be so completely invested in the spirit of invictus is futile when we are–from the outset–so flawed. This is especially true when we have a loving Father in Heaven who is perfect (Matthew 5:48). He stands ready and waiting to bless us, comfort us and lighten our burdens as soon as we ask (Matthew 7:7-11). Taken to extremes, the spirit of invictus would persuade us not to ask.

The perspective of Elder Whitney is crucial in recognizing that there are some things we can’t do for ourselves. On our own we are hopelessly flawed and simply can’t change this without a Savior. Though Henley’s spirit of invictus is laudable, to be healed we still must turn to Christ, tame that unconquerable soul and surrender our sword to Jesus Christ–the Captain of our soul.
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