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?
My current job forces me to think of the year in terms of quarters. I am glad to report that Q1, which ended this past week, was very productive. Not at work, necessarily, but in the ways that matter.
For one thing, the Major League Baseball regular season started during Q1. This year was the earliest opening day yet. (To be honest, I still believe that March baseball should be played in either Florida or Arizona. I shouldn’t be able to watch a regular season ballgame and then have to shake snow flurries from my hair the same night.)
More importantly, I have stuck with my new year’s resolution though the first three months of the year. This year, I resolved to memorize two poems a month. It has been an enriching and very pleasurable experience. And, because I have made a habit of reciting the poems to myself as I walk to and from the train during my work commute, the project has not been a drain on my time.
January, I memorized Ozymandias by Percy Shelley and Clancy of the Overflow by Banjo Paterson. In the 2018 film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, there is a character who performs dramatic recitations of Ozymandias. I’m not sure that is why I chose to start with that poem, but it seems possible. I chose Clancy because Banjo Paterson has been a favorite poet of mine for a long time.
In February, I memorized Dos Cuerpos by Octavio Paz and The Mouse’s Petition by Anna Laetitia Barbauld. After January went so well, I wanted to stretch myself a bit by memorizing a poem in Spanish. I consulted with a bilingual friend of mine who studied poetry in college. My requirements were that the poem be good, short, and have a manageable vocabulary. (After all, it is well over a decade since my last high school Spanish test.) Dos Cuerpos fit the bill. I read The Mouse’s Petition for the first time last year, and was very taken with it. Aside from the obvious merits of the poem itself, I have been very interested in Joseph Priestly and his experiments since my freshman chemistry classes.
To end the first quarter of the year, I memorized If— by Rudyard Kipling and The Quitter by Robert W. Service. If— is probably my favorite poem of all-time. And as a new father, it has taken on additional significance to me. (Also, The Simpsons did it!) The Quitter was chosen as a follow-up to If— because it is very similar in both tone and message. In fact, if I were to call Robert Service “the poor man’s Kipling,” I would probably not be the first.
Overall, I am very pleased with myself and my choices. I cannot help but believe that memorizing poetry is good for the mind and the soul (if those are different things.) I like to think that I have made a good start on a habit that I will keep for years to come. Maybe next year I will memorize famous speeches. But there is no need to get ahead of myself now; I’ve still got three quarters of 2019 to go.
Beer of the week: Son of a Peach – This unfiltered wheat beer from South Carolina’s RJ Rockers Brewing Company is brewed with Carolina peaches. It is peachy, but not overly sweet. The wheat and a hint of vanilla in the finish reminds me of peaches & cream oatmeal. I rather enjoy this beer.
Reading of the week: Casey at the Bat by Ernest Thayer – Now that baseball season is upon us, I’ve decided to memorize Casey at the Bat. It is undoubtedly the best poem ever written about baseball, and arguably the greatest piece of American comic verse ever written.
Question for the week: Excluding song lyrics, what is the longest written work you have ever memorized?
This is the thirtieth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXX: Scientific Papers
In 1911, a mere two years after the Harvard Classics was first published, Douglas Mawson (later Sir Douglas Mawson) led an expedition to map the coastline of Antarctica. He was an adventurer and a hero, but he was a man of science first. The great proof of this is not only in his scientific achievements, but also in his very attitude toward his objectives.
In 1912, Mawson was part of a brutal race against time and weather to get back to the base camp. He was part of a three-man surveying party that had pushed over 300 miles into (quite literally) uncharted territory. Suddenly, one of the dogsleds disappeared into a crevasse. With it went one of the men, B. E. S. Ninnis, the better half of the dogs, and most of the rations. Mawson and his remaining companion, Xavier Mertz, with little food (and no dog food) turn back to camp faced with the very real possibility that the weather and lack of supplies would thwart their attempted return.
Frostbite was a problem for them. But even worse was a condition called hypervitaminosis A. When humans consume too much vitamin A, they can suffer from adverse mental effects, hair and skin loss, and a slew of other nasty effects. And it just so happens that husky livers are chock-full of vitamin A. Of course, Mawson and Mertz did not know that; vitamin A was not even named until 1920. So when it came time to eat the sled dogs, they ate them liver and all. The results were deadly.
After nearly a month of trudging, eating stringy dog meat, and deteriorating health, Mertz succumbed. With the wind howling outside of the tent, his team members dead, and his own collection of physical ailments, Mawson considered just staying in his sleeping bag. It would be easy to just stay in the bag forever. But instead, he remembered this poem by Robert W. Service:
When you’re lost in the Wild, and you’re scared as a child,
And Death looks you bang in the eye,
And you’re sore as a boil, it’s according to Hoyle
To cock your revolver and… die.
But the Code of a Man says: “Fight all you can,”
And self-dissolution is barred.
In hunger and woe, oh, it’s easy to blow…
It’s the hell-served-for-breakfast that’s hard.
“You’re sick of the game!” Well, now, that’s a shame.
You’re young and you’re brave and you’re bright.
“You’ve had a raw deal!” I know — but don’t squeal,
Buck up, do your damnedest, and fight.
It’s the plugging away that will win you the day,
So don’t be a piker, old pard!
Just draw on your grit; it’s so easy to quit:
It’s the keeping-your-chin-up that’s hard.
It’s easy to cry that you’re beaten — and die;
It’s easy to crawfish and crawl;
But to fight and to fight when hope’s out of sight —
Why, that’s the best game of them all!
And though you come out of each gruelling bout,
All broken and beaten and scarred,
Just have one more try — it’s dead easy to die,
It’s the keeping-on-living that’s hard.
(Service, by the way, is known as the Bard of the Yukon. How appropriate for someone struggling for life near the South Pole to get strength from a poet of the far north.)
And those words inspired Mawson to break camp and trudge on. The day he buried Mertz in the snow, Mawson wrote in his journal: “I read the Burial Service over Xavier this afternoon. As there is little chance of my reaching human aid alive. I greatly regret inability at the moment to set out the detail of coastline met with for three hundred miles travelled and observations of glacier and ice-formations, etc.; the most of which latter are, of course, committed to my head.” See what I mean about Mawson’s attitude toward his geographic work?
Over the next thirty days, Mawson made his way back toward base. At one point, he fell through the ice. However the sled, what was left of it, wedged in the opening of the crevasse, and Mawson dangled from a rope above the abyss. Despite his weakened state, he hauled himself up, only for the edge to break away beneath him and leave him hanging once more at the end of the rope. He summoned all of his strength for one final attempt and dragged himself from the gulf in the ice.
Eventually, Mawson made it back to base camp. He returned without his companions, without his dogs, and without much of his skin and hair. What he did bring back was a great deal of geographical information, including names for two large glaciers on the Antarctic coast: Ninnis Glacier and Mertz Glacier.
Beer of the week: Alaskan Amber – Alaska has many nicknames, including “The Last Frontier”. But Mawson’s account of Antarctica makes Alaska seem relatively tame. And at least Alaska has breweries. From Juneau comes this delightful amber ale. It pours a clear dark amber with a good head. It smells mostly of roasted malt. The beer is smooth and malty, with hints of marshmallow and apricot. Delicious.
Reading of the week: Geographical Evolution by Sir Archibald Geikie – At the beginning of this essay, Geikie writes, “From the geographical point of view… we must rank an explorer according to his success in widening our knowledge and enlarging our views regarding the aspects of nature.” In this respect, Mawson ranks very highly among the great Antarctic explorers.
Questions of the week: As great a story as it is, is it even possible that the information gathered by the Australasian Antarctic Expedition was worth the human suffering and death?