Kevin Saving on
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.
When this great booming Broadside of a poem was written (during the early part of 1875) its author, William Ernest Henley, was twenty-five years of age and languishing in a small ward of the old Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh.
The eldest son of an unsuccessful Gloucester bookseller, Henley was never to experience good health after the age of twelve, when he developed tuberculosis of the bone (which required the amputation of his left leg, below the knee, four years later). Thereafter, he was to walk using crutches and with the aid of a 'wooden leg'. His right ankle was also affected and required support bandages. A resilient character, the young Henley determined upon a literary career and had just begun to submit work to Cornhill Magazine when he was admitted first to Margate Infirmary (where doctors wanted to remove his other leg) and then - after he'd discharged himself - to the teaching hospital in Edinburgh.
The twenty months or so which he spent there under the auspices of the eminent, pioneering surgeon, Professor Joseph Lister, were to be the defining period of his life. Lister - to whom he would profess an abiding gratitude - performed a succession of painful operations on the affected limb, utilising his own (currently radical) antiseptic practices, and recommending a succession of splints. Though not entirely cured, Henley kept his foot. Whilst 'laid up' he taught himself French and Italian and wrote the majority of his 'In Hospital' verse-sequence. This, consisting in the main of un-rhymed sketches of hospital life, was to be published thirteen years later in the poet's A Book of Verse (1888) which was something of a literary sensation - reviewed in around forty publications by (amongst others) the likes of Oscar Wilde, G.B.Shaw and J.M.Barrie.
Burley and rumbustious, Henley left a strong impression on many of his acquaintances during his hospitalisation. One, Leslie Stephen (editor of Cornhill, and in Edinburgh on a lecture tour) visited his erstwhile correspondent in January, 1875, bringing along another young writer who was based in the city and had submitted work to the magazine. This was the beginning of an important friendship for both Henley and Robert Louis Stevenson: they would co-author several plays (Deacon Brodie being, perhaps, the most successful). Henley, who throughout his adult life affected a thick, piratical beard, became the prototype for Treasure Island's 'Long John Silver'. Another new acquaintance, Anna Boyle, who was visiting her brother in the infirmary, was to begin a relationship with the irascible but kindly writer culminating in their 1878 marriage (which endured until Henley's death).
No saint, Henley - a devotee of self-reliance and affirming high-Tory, imperialistic principles - was a determinedly disputatious individual who quarrelled frequently, even with his friends. He would become estranged from Stevenson in 1888 to their deep, mutual loss.
After leaving Edinburgh's infirmary Henley would take on a peripatetic and often impecunious career
as a freelance, initially working on the research staff of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and continuing his association with Cornhill under Stephen. Later, as editor of journals such as the Magazine of Art, the New Review and, particularly, the Scots (later the National) Observer, he would publish some of the early work of the - at the time uncelebrated - writers, Joseph Conrad, W.B.Yeats and Rudyard Kipling. In 1894 the loss of his only child, Margaret, to cerebral meningitis (aged five), would finally knock much of the spirit out of him and he would die, soon after his and Anna's silver wedding anniversary, less than ten years later.
Sometimes also known as 'Out of the night', Henley's best-known poem was much-anthologised even in his lifetime - though he, and it, have since fallen rather out-of-fashion. His own preferred title was the unrevealing 'i.m. R.T.Hamilton Bruce (1846-1899)'. The latter was a wealthy financial-backer of the Scots Observer and a steadfast friend, known to Henley (who bestowed nick-names on just about everybody) as 'The Infallible'. The most common title for the verses, 'Invictus', is latin for 'unconquered'.
Atkinson,D. [Ed], The Selected Letters of W.E.Henley, Ashgate (2000)
Connell,J., W.E.Henley, Constable (1949)
Harman, C., Robert Louis Stevenson, Harper Collins (2004)
Kevin Saving © 2009