Daily Archives: November 5, 2014

Analysis of William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus”

William Ernest Henley young.jpg

William Ernest Henley (1849 – 1903)

William Ernest Henley had a difficult life. His family was poor, his father died when he was young, and at age twelve tuberculosis necessitated the amputation of one of his legs below the knee. His other foot was later saved only after radical surgery. Henley was in and out of the hospital from the ages of eighteen to twenty-six, including a continuous three-year span from 1873-1875. He wrote “Invictus,” which is Latin for unconquered while recovering in the infirmary. It is one of the most memorable poems in the English language.

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.

The stirring finale of this poem is as fresh as the day it was written, still acting as a buttress against encroaching determinism. I have studied the philosophical issue of freedom enough to know that a sustained defense of free will is nearly impossible, but neither can its reverse be definitely established.

So we might as well believe in freedom. For if we have no choice but to believe in the freedom of will, then by necessity we will believe in it. And if we have a choice to believe in freedom of will, then by definition we are free. There is little to lose and much to gain by acting as if we are free as if we are masters of our fate and captains of our souls.

Meaning of Philip Larkin’s, “This Be The Verse”

Philip Larkin (1922 – 1985)

I was thinking about the influence of parents, living or dead, on their adult children. No doubt the impact is significant, and fate deals her hand randomly in such matters. But to what extent can we overcome parental influence? Philip Larkin wrote the most depressing poem I’ve ever read about parents.

This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

I don’t like this poem, and not because I’m afraid to face the nihilistic side of human life. (As anyone who reads this blog can attest.) The first stanza accuses, ok. The second excuses, ok. But the third is deeply problematic.

First, if misery deepens by necessity, which is clearly implied, then we live in a fatalistic universe where all our efforts are pointless. Moreover, in that universe whether we remain childless or commit suicide would also be determined by fate, and there would be no point in advocating for either. For such reasons fatalism has few advocates among philosophers.

Second, if misery does not deepen by necessity, then we have the chance to rectify it. Surely this is a better solution than suicide or childlessness. Larkin may believe that we are better off never having been born, but this doesn’t follow from a soft determinism or compatibilism (the idea that free will and determinism can be reconciled.) The fact that life is less than perfect, doesn’t imply that it isn’t worth living.

In my next post, I’ll consider another poem that is more positive about the possibility of overcoming circumstances.