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The irony of much English poetry is that it is intense, emotional and passionate – characteristics that are not generally used to describe the English themselves. But as Henley’s poem (below) demonstrates, marshalling words together in a specific order is the creative challenge of writing. Words alone have brought down governments and launched revolutions – the least they can do is to inspire individuals, as these words inspired Nelson Mandela, among others. Andrew L. Urban reports.

Hungary’s national poet, Petőfi Sándor, triggered the Hungarian Revolution in 1848 with his rousing poem, Stand Up, Hungarian; that, and a 12 point letter of demand, was what fuelled the Hungarians to rise up against the oppressive Hapsburg Empire. On the morning of March 15h, the young revolutionaries who had gathered around the highly motivated, Petőfi began to march around the city of Pest, reading out the poem and the 12 points to the crowd (which swelled to thousands). Then, they visited printing presses, declaring an end to all forms of censorship and printing Petőfi's poem together with the 12 points. The mayor was forced by the crowds to sign the 12 points. Later, a mass demonstration was held in front of the newly-built National Museum, after which the group left for Buda on the western of the Danube. When the crowd rallied in front of the Imperial governing council, the representatives of Emperor Ferdinand felt they had no choice but to sign the 12 points. As one of the points was freedom for political prisoners, the crowd moved on to greet the newly freed revolutionary poet Mihály Táncsics.

"the potency of words"

I mention this fragment of history as an example of the potency of words – in this case a poem, which, like Invictus, had the power to sustain or motivate people to overcome their burdens. Many faiths use prayers for a similar purpose of course, but Invictus is decidedly humanistic; Henley relies on his own human resources to sustain himself.

Invictus tells one chapter of Nelson Mandela’s life. In his first historic term as President of South Africa, Mandela (Morgan Freeman), faces the tensions and divisions of a post apartheid nation, where whites and blacks are equally suspicious of the other. Mandela, who had survived 27 years in prison (clinging to the spiritual message of William Ernest Henley’s poem, Invictus) believes that the South African white man’s sport – rugby – can help bring his people closer together, so he makes it his mission, through the captain, Francois Pnnear (Matt Damon) to inspire and encourage the struggling Springboks to lift their game as they head for the 1995 Rugby World Cup – as the underdogs.

It is indicative that Clint Eastwood would use the title of the poem for the film adaptation; John Carlin’s book is titled Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation. But for Eastwood, the important factor was what sustained Nelson Mandela through his years in jail, and how that forged him into who he was, a man who grew stronger by virtue of his suffering – without becoming embittered. This, which Buddhists will recognise, is one of the roads to enlightenment – and I mean the tangible kind of enlightenment that enables us to see humanity clearly but with compassion.

Published January 21, 2010

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Invictus * (written 1875)
By William Ernest Henley (1849 – 1902, England)

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.

* Originally untitled, Invictus (Latin for "unconquered") was added by Arthur Quiller-Couch when he included the poem in The Oxford Book Of English Verse (1900).

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