If you are reading this, you have probably never been “in the fell clutches of circumstance.” You’ve likely never suffered “the bludgeonings of chance.” And odds are, you haven’t been engulfed by a metaphorical night as “black as the pit from pole to pole.”
If you have not been tested to the utmost, how can you know whether your soul is unconquerable? Or whether you really are the master of your own fate? And, more relevant for our present purposes, what good is the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley?
In his youth, Henley suffered from tuberculosis. He had a leg amputated when he was sixteen. Later, rather than submitting to the amputation of his remaining foot, Henley traveled to Scotland to be a patient of a doctor later to be known as “the father of modern surgery,” Joseph Lister. Lister’s antiseptic treatments saved Henley’s foot. During his three-year course of treatment, Henley wrote and published his famous “hospital poems,” including Invictus. Although he eventually lost the battle with tuberculosis, a disease that caused him constant pain and cost him his leg, Henley had spent his whole life with his head unbowed.
Invictus is also associated with Nelson Mandela and his time at the infamous Robben Island prison. Sentenced to life imprisonment, and consequently with no obvious hope of ever again being a free man, Mandela supposedly recited Invictus to fellow inmates. Even in a cage, Mandela remained the captain of his own soul. (As an aside, the CIA had a hand in Mandela’s arrest. So there’s your fun fact for the day.)
For men such as Henley and Mandela, Invictus appears to affirm their mettle. The poem’s value, however, is not as an affirmation, but as a bulwark. The poem is not a boast about one’s fortitude and strength of character, but a brace against the bludgeonings of chance. Just as The Quitter by Robert W. Service helped Douglas Mawson overcome the compounded difficulties of being sick and alone in the uncharted antarctic wilderness, Invictus has served as a source of inspiration for those in fell circumstances. It would behoove us all to study poems such as Invictus while we are relatively safe and comfortable, so that we can call them to mind if and when we must face true suffering.
Beer of the week: Official by Bell’s Brewery – This hazy wheat IPA pours with a white, rocky head. It has a very faint aroma, with a hint of grass. Notes of peach are followed by a dry finish and nice wheat notes.
Reading of the week: Invictus by William Ernest Henley – This poem also lent its name to the most successful rugby movie ever made. On the eve of the Rugby World Cup Final, it is worth a revisit. (By the way, this poem uses the adjective “fell”–meaning “terrible” or “ferocious”–to describe the “clutches of circumstance.” It is the only time I can think of where that adjective has been used to describe anything other than a “swoop.”)
Question for the week: In case of emergency, you may stock up physical needs such as canned foods, candles, and bottled water for disaster. But how do you prepare for your mental well-being?
“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more clearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilization, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints,” writes Robert Louis Stevenson in his Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes.
Night is the best time to be in the forest or in the field, away from the city and its restless denizens. “Night is a dead monotonous period under a roof; but in the open world it passes lightly, with its stars and dews and perfumes, and the hours are marked by changes in the face of Nature… All night long [the man who sleeps afield] can hear Nature breathing deeply and freely; even as she takes her rest she turns and smiles.” With some cold beer and some fine weather, a man could do far worse than to spend a night far from the city. Which is why I am going camping this weekend.
Travels with a Donkey describes Stevenson’s 12-day hike across the mountains of central France. I will have to settle for a weekend at a state park, and a few hours of highway driving to get there and back. So what if Stevenson’s trip has the advantages of greater leisure and more picturesque environs? I have the edge in a very important respect; while his trip was made in solitude, mine will be in “solitude made perfect.”
Stevenson lamented, “even while I was exulting in my solitude I became aware of a strange lack. I wished a companion to lie near me in the starlight, silent and not moving, but ever within touch. For there is a fellowship more quiet even than solitude, and which, rightly understood, is solitude made perfect. And to live out of doors with the woman a man loves is of all lives the most complete and free.”
Beer of the week: Melt My Brain – This beer comes from Short’s Brewing Company in Michigan, and from the word “go”, it was sure to be unique. The can advertises a “golden ale brewed with coriander, juniper berries and lime, with tonic water added.” It is the lime and the tonic that predominate, at the expense of the beer itself. The beer pours a very pale and slightly hazy yellow. Lime leads the aroma. The first note on the tongue is sticky sweetness. The sweetness is cut as the flavor develops, first by the tart lime and then by the lingering bitterness of piney hops and quinine. I can’t help but think that the tonic water is a big mistake; it adds way too much sugar. And, although I appreciate the distinctive bitterness of the quinine, I suspect that lime zest and/or more hops could be employed to similar effect. Or they could add quinine rather than whole tonic. (By the way, if you think that a G&T is a low calorie alternative to other cocktails, think again; tonic water has nearly as much sugar as a regular soda pop.) I appreciate the innovation, but Melt My Brain just is not for me.
Reading of the week: Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes by Robert Louis Stevenson – In this portion of the book, Stevenson describes a beautiful night spent sleeping in a pine forrest. His bespoke sleeping bag was made of “green waterproof cart cloth without and blue sheep’s fur within,” and he woke in the middle of the night to smoke a cigarette and study the color of the night sky. Almost makes me wish I smoked.
Question for the week: Does camping sharpen our appreciation for home, the way that Plato claimed we can only appreciate comfort by being relieved of some discomfort?
This is the eighth in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.
SINCERITY: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
To some extent, many competitive sports rely on subterfuge and deception. Hockey has its deke moves, basketball its pump fakes, boxing its feints, rugby its dummy passes. Baseball, no less than any of these other sports, has it’s share of deceptive practices.
The president of Harvard (and editor of the Harvard Classics) William Eliot once said of the university’s baseball team, “…this year I’m told the team did well because one pitcher had a fine curve ball. I understand that a curve ball is thrown with a deliberate attempt to deceive. Surely this is not an ability we should want to foster at Harvard.” Eliot, however, is in the minority; most people appreciate and applaud a ball player who is especially adept at deception. It is part of the game, as they say.
Another sneaky part of the game is stealing signs. The catcher uses hand signals to communicate with the pitcher, and if an a base runner is able to intercept those signs, he may gain valuable information for his team. And it is generally accepted that there is nothing wrong with stealing signs.
However, a few weeks ago the Boston Red Sox got caught using an Apple Watch to communicate stolen signs, and that burned some people up. It’s fair enough to have a player steal signs from the base paths, but to use video cameras and electronic messaging is something else entirely. For one thing, a catcher may change his signs when an opponent is on base, making the signs themselves part of a game within the game. But what adaptive measures could the catcher use against video cameras and wireless messaging? It takes an aspect of the game away from the players and puts it in the hands of nameless support staff. For another thing, it converts a relatively rare advantage into a constant. Traditional sign stealing only happens when a runner is on second base, but the use of video makes it possible to steal signs on every single pitch.
The line between admirably clever and despicably devious is not always easy to spot, but when somebody steps well and truly over that line, he draws well deserved ire.
Beer of the week: Oval Beach Blonde – Summer is technically over, but a late heat wave has kept this summer blonde enjoyable. Oval Beach is a beautiful blonde brew from Saugatuck Brewing Company in Michigan. The beer is just a bit tangy, and has a nice malt body. A very refreshing choice.
Reading of the week: The Alexiad by Anna Komnene, Book I, Chapters X & XI – As in sport, military leaders are often praised for deception, but only up to a point. A well laid ambush is considered laudable, but if the ambush is baited with a false truce, it is considered villainous. This excerpt describes some of the acts of Robert Guiscard. Anna Komnene clearly thinks that Robert overstepped the bounds of decency, but history knows him as “Robert the Resourceful”.
Question for the week: Is there really a fair distinction between clever deception and devious deception? Or is all deception equally admirable/reprehensible? (Kant may suggest an answer.)