William Ernest Henley wrote Invictus in 1875. Undoubtably his most famous poem, it is an anthem of defiance. It has returned to prominence with the recent death of Nelson Mandela. Mandela would recite it to fellow inmates during his years of imprisonment, and President Obama recited the poem at Mandela’s memorial service. But Invictus has had a checkered history. When Timothy McVeigh was executed for the Oklahoma City bombing, he also recited Invictus.
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.
“I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul”–with these word Henley expressed his lifelong animosity towards God, Christ, and the Gospel. One person he apparently influenced (for a while) was Dorothy Day (1897-1980), writer and social activist. In her younger years, Day was a self-styled anarchist and communist who in the 1920s lived a Bohemian lifestyle. But in 1927 she experienced a dramatic conversion to Christ. Day continued her social activism, but now under the Lordship of Christ. Day wrote a response to Invictus. She entitled it “My Captain.”
Out of the light that dazzles me,
Bright as the sun from pole to pole,
I thank the God I know to be,
For Christ – the Conqueror of my soul.
Since His the sway of circumstance,
I would not wince nor cry aloud.
Under the rule which men call chance,
My head, with joy, is humbly bowed.
Beyond this place of sin and tears,
That Life with Him and His the Aid,
That, spite the menace of the years,
Keeps, and will keep me unafraid.
I have no fear though straight the gate:
He cleared from punishment the scroll.
Christ is the Master of my fate!
Christ is the Captain of my soul!
The two poems really do sum up the two paths before us…two gates, two destinies–two Captains. Who is your Captain?