To Be Determined

To Be Determined

22 May 2020: Poet’s Day 8

This week’s poems are all on the subject of determination, courage and hope in the face of huge odds.

We have “Invictus”, William Ernest Henley’s powerful evocation of strength of character in the face of adversity, “Say Not the Struggle Nought Availeth” Arthur Hugh Clough’s poem of hope, and “Vitai Lampada”, Sir Henry Newbolt’s poem about courage.

Next week: poems about tricksters and rogues.

Poem 22: Invictus

“I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”

William Ernest Henley (1849—1903)

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.

Invictus was written in adversity and expresses the poet’s determination that even if he should sink under the weight of his afflictions, he shall do so with an unbowed head and an iron will. Despite his circumstances, the poem demonstrates an indomitable will.

William Henley was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the bone at the age of 12 and lost one of his legs below the knee; the other was only saved through pioneering surgery performed by Joseph Lister. Henley was often in excruciating pain while healing: he wrote this poem and others during that time, but this one perhaps expresses his feelings best.

He was a friend of Rudyard Kipling and promoted the work of James McNeil Whistler and Auguste Rodin. He formed a close friendship with Robert Louis Stevenson and Stevenson partially based his iconic one-legged pirate Long John Silver on Henley, writing to him after the publication of Treasure Island that “the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you”. This and Henley’s career as an editor and journalist aren’t the only influences of the Henley family on literature: his daughter Margaret, who was unable to speak clearly, described the writer J.M. Barrie as her “fwendy-wendy”, leading to Barrie’s name of Wendy for one of the female characters in Peter Pan. Sadly, Margaret was not a robust child and did not live to read Barrie’s tale.

It is sad that Henley’s poem has been adopted by the perpetrators of violent acts as an explanation or justification: the bomber who attacked Oklahoma City in 1995 and the mass murderer who attacked mosques in New Zealand in 2019 both sought to twist the message of this poem to suit their ideologies, but to me it remains a powerful expression of determination and courage in a desperate situation, and a better celebration of the sentiments it expresses is the Invictus Games, only tangentially connected to the poem via their name, which in Latin means “unconquered” or “undefeated” and what better title is there for a celebration of the strength of the human spirit in adversity?

Poem 23. Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth

“And not by eastern windows only, when daylight comes, comes in the light”

Arthur Hugh Clough (1819—1861)

Say not the struggle naught availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain.

If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
It may be, in yon smoke conceal’d,
Your comrades chase e’en now the fliers,
And, but for you, possess the field.

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light;
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly!
But westward, look, the land is bright!

This poem strikes a note of hope when things look their darkest; the poem suggests that despite the apparently dire circumstances, it may be that success is to be the reward, rather than failure. It was apparently written after the defeat of Chartism in 1848.

Arthur Hugh Clough was an English writer and the devoted assistant of Florence Nightingale, his wife’s cousin; he was also the brother of the suffragist Anne Clough and the father of Blanche Clough who, like her aunt, became the principal of Newnham College, Cambridge.

He also wrote an essay on religious faith, Through a Glass Darkly, and The Latest Decalogue, a satire on the Ten Commandments: its couplet on murder, “Thou shalt not kill; but needst not strive officiously to keep alive” is frequently quoted (often out of context) in discussions of medical ethics; it also influenced Isaac Asimov’s First Law of Robotics: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm”.

Poem 24. Vitaï Lampada

“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

Sir Henry Newbolt (1862—1938)

There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night—
Ten to make and the match to win—
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote—
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

The sand of the desert is sodden red,—
Red with the wreck of a square that broke;—
The Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks,
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

This is the word that year by year,
While in her place the School is set,
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind—
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

The first stanza describes a critical moment in a school cricket match, where the score is finely poised and the batting side has one wicket left to save themselves; the last man in is urged by his captain to play not for selfish gain, but for the good of his team.

The second stanza describes a more critical and bloody moment, when an infantry square has been broken by the enemy, its commanding officer killed, its sole machine gun has jammed and soldiers are being cut down on all sides; despite the carnage, the lesson learned at the cricket match of selfless contribution to the team’s victory brings the infantrymen to order. I imagine the “voice of the schoolboy” isn’t an audible voice but an unconscious prompting arising from the lesson often repeated: “Play up! Play up! And play the game!”.

The last stanza reinforces the lesson learned, and despite the rather jingoistic nature of the poem, it expresses the influential role that schools play in all our lives, encouraging excellence in the traditional school subjects but also helping to form our character and connecting us to new circles of friends and influences outside of our family circle. It also suggests that the qualities inspired travel through the generations, one throwing the torch to the next, transmitting the same selflessness and courage to those who follow. “Vitaï Lampada” literally translates to “the torch of life” and comes from a quotation from the Roman writer Lucretius.

The incidents in the poem are grounded in reality: the Close in the first line is the Close at Clifton College, Bristol which was the scene of 13 of W.G. Grace’s centuries for Gloucestershire; the events of the second stanza are very loosely based on the Battle of Abu Klea (or Abu Tulayh) which took place during the expedition to rescue General Gordon at Khartoum.

I have already given a thumbnail sketch of Newbolt when I talked about Drake’s Drum; this poem and that are Newbolt’s most popular works, though this poem was viewed rather equivocally in World War I; some regarded it highly (no doubt for its patriotic sentiment) and some satirised it (I’d guess for the same reason). The disapprobation is best expressed by Wilfred Owen in the closing lines of “Dulce et Decorum est”:

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”—“It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country” was a popular sentiment of the First World War, but not among those who actually saw the horrors first hand. Determination is a fine thing, but not at any cost.