Posts Tagged ‘New Year’



by William Earnest 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.



“Invictus” is one of those poems that’s familiar even if you’ve never read it. Maybe you’ve heard of the title (which inspired, among other things, a movie about Nelson Mandela, a men’s fragrance, a CrossFit workout, and Prince Harry’s sporting competition for wounded veterans). Certain phrases from the poem have wide circulation—master of my fate, captain of my soul, bloody but unbowed, clutch of circumstance—and whole lines have shown up everywhere from a Winston Churchill speech to a scene from Casablanca to a Lana Del Ray song. You probably even know the poet without knowing the poet (more on that later). So it’s good to see the whole of “Invictus” and understand why it’s had such broad appeal over centuries and continents.


As for me, the appeal is limited. I don’t love this poem, but I can’t help but feel roused after reading it. It’s a veritable shot of adrenaline to those on their last legs. Which is actually where the poem came from. From someone on his last leg.


At age twelve poet William Earnest Henley (1849-1903) had a leg amputated because of tuberculosis of the bone. In his early twenties doctors wanted to amputate his other leg. But Henley sought out the famous surgeon Joseph Lister (pioneer in preventative medicine, eponym of Listerine) who used antiseptic techniques to save Henley’s remaining limb. While recovering in the hospital for three years, Henley wrote “Invictus,” Latin for “unconquered.”


Henley was a magazine editor, critic, playwright and poet. He’s often called the Samuel Johnson of the Victorian era, so striking his influence. The circle of writers he published and befriended included Robert Louise Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, H.G. Wells and W.B. Yeats.


A tall, muscular man with a red bushy beard and big personality, Henley was surprisingly agile on his wooden leg and cane. And here’s how you might know him: he was the inspiration for the most famous pirate of all time, Long John Silver from Treasure Island. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote to Henley, “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.” …


His only child, Margaret Emma, lives on in literature as well. She used to call J.M. Barrie her “fwendy-wendy,” and so the character of Wendy in Peter Pan was born. Margaret Emma died of meningitis at age five.


Henley died of complications of tuberculosis at age fifty-three.


I left “Invictus” in a co-working site in Detroit. No one took it down for a few days and as far as I know it’s still there. Maybe the poem will inspire confidence in a beleaguered entrepreneur wandering the halls.


And for you readers, I hope as much.


Be it personal, political, or meteorological, whatever place of wrath and tears you’ve lived through this past year, whatever bludgeoning of chance you’ve faced, here you are, in 2018, unconquered, invictus.


Happy New Year.


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My old friend Trish (frequent commentator, a great reader of poems, an even better writer and artist) sent her annual Christmas fantasy card. I pass it along with her permission:


Screen Shot 2015-12-23 at 1.19.50 PM


And in case you’ve got loads of spare time for reading, I’ll also share a link for a piece from the New York Times Sunday Book Review, “What’s Your Favorite Poem?”  Writers, actors, and producers were asked to share a favorite. The responses have given me some homework to do–I haven’t read many of these poems, haven’t even heard of half of them.


If you have a favorite poem (note to Mo Williams, whoever that is–Dr. Seuss does not count), please post a comment here.


I’ll be back in the New Year!


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It was a season of near disasters.   Two weeks before Christmas I lost my aunt’s pearls, a graduated strand of Mikimoto beauties which her husband had brought back from Japan after WWII.  Just as I was getting ready to confess, that same aunt had a fall and landed in the hospital.  She recovered, the pearls were found, and thus did the overcooked tenderloin on Christmas Eve and the overnighted presents which didn’t arrive by Christmas take their proper place in the ranks of what is not important.  (My advice to Hamlet:  readiness is not all.  Perspective is.)

Aunt Joann, not wearing her recovered pearls

Aunt Joann, not wearing her recovered pearls


It was also a season of unexpected gifts.  Here’s one, from my daughter Lizzie:


Out of the overturned nest fall four eggs, and out of the eggs fly nine origami birds.  I didn’t get the symbolism at first, but with a little help I understood. An empty nest.  Re-birth.  Possibility.  Next fall, when the last of my four leaves for college, I’ll have my mobile to remind me to look at the situation with hopefulness.


The second unexpected gift was from my youngest little bird. On Christmas Eve after everyone had gone to bed, she stayed up for hours cleaning out my laundry room/office.  It was a big job.  Piles of laundry, stacks of books, framed prints, unframed prints, office supplies, loose papers, notebooks, textbooks, photo albums, boxes of pictures, and probably plain old trash had covered the floor, desk and bookcases.  When she presented the tidied room on Christmas day, I nearly fell over with joy on the empty floor.

my cleaning gal

my cleaning gal


The third gift I’ll mention is related to that room, before it was cleaned.  Truly I had despaired of ever organizing the mess there.  My husband, who usually delights in throwing out things I hoard, had refused to help me because I had un-done his past work.  So a week before Christmas I was ironing (unusual in itself) and looked at a pile of books stacked on a chair (not unusual at all) and decided that while I was waiting for the iron to heat up, I could at least put away a few books (highly unusual).  I picked up a book of Edna St. Vincent Millay poems belonging to my father that my mother had recently sent.


While I was thumbing through the book, I found a letter.  It was from my sister-in-law’s father, now deceased, to my father, also deceased.  Des was writing to thank Don for loaning a book, and ended with this:

“I think one could meditate forever on Francis Thompson’s lines in his final stanza:

‘Is my gloom, after all, shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?’


I re-read the letter a few times.  I forgot about the iron, forgot about shelving the book.  I was overwhelmed by the humanity of it, there in my hand, this intimate record of two old men trying to understand themselves, their lives, their emotions. Des’ handwriting as elegant as his expressions.


Here’s the gift part of the story:  I emailed my sister-in-law to ask if she wanted the letter.  She wrote back immediately.  Turns out she had just been thinking of it.  Long ago, shortly after her father died, my father had read her the letter.  She didn’t ask for the letter, although she wanted it, and had wondered over the years what had happened to it.  By chance, it re-appeared in her life, just a day after the anniversary of her father’s death.


Make of that what you will.


I also found this in the book:


look closely for the golden crumb

A crumb of food.  It’s a little disgusting, but also touches me somehow, this image of my father reading a poem-play and, maybe bored or maybe just sloppy, eating a cookie and dropping his crumbs in the pages.  Hardened now and preserved in a closed book, evidence of his constant reading, his yearning for things beautiful, his love of sweets.


Happy New Year!  Thanks to all you wonderful readers!




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After stuffing Christmas decorations in rubber bins and garbage bags, after consuming the last Christmas cookie crumb, after shelving the Christmas cards I know I won’t be sending, after putting away the thoughtful gifts I received,  I am left with one gift that will never be used.  Not for the usual reasons of fit or taste or intentional uselessness.  The postcards my daughter for me are too dear to deposit in any mailbox.  She paired lines from Shakespeare with pictures she took of our dog Jane.

Here is Jane in a witch’s cape:


The lines are Falstaff’s from Henry IV:  “You starveling, you elfskin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stockfish! O, for breath to utter what is like thee! “


Here we have Jane in a Halloween mask:



Jane looks very like one of the Weird Sisters Macbeth addresses:

you should be women, 
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret 
That you are so.


Next a Frenchified Jane in a trench coat, beret and silk scarf. She’s brought a box of Panko to coat the birds in front of her.




The lines are from Measure for Measure.  Isabella pleads for her brother’s life:

Go to your bosom

Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know.


And finally, Jane sick in bed:



Paired with an excerpt from Sonnet 147:

My love is as a fever, longing still

For that which longer nurseth the disease.


Happy New Year, everyone.


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