How 'Long John Silver' Gave Hope to Mandela - and Brown

Article excerpt


Last week Gordon Brown claimed that Invictus - the poem which Mandela says helped him endure his imprisonment - summed up his attitude to his role as Prime Minister. 'It is about determination. It summarises my view,' he said.

Invictus means 'unconquered' in Latin, and Clint Eastwood felt it was the perfect title for his film.

The poem was written in the 1870s when its author, William Ernest Henley, was in hospital in Edinburgh facing the loss of both legs.

As a child in Gloucester, Henley had contracted tuberculosis, which affected his legs. One leg was amputated below the knee when he was 16 and surgeons also wanted to amputate the other foot.

So, in his 20s, Henley went for pioneering treatment in Edinburgh under surgeon Joseph Lister, who was experimenting in the use of antiseptics. For 20 months, Lister scraped the foot bones with 'antisepticised' instruments. Gangrene failed to set in. The leg was saved.

In hospital, Henley began writing poems. They were called the In Hospital series and were published in London's Cornhill Magazine. The series concluded with Invictus.

Invictus is one of those poems that I call 'theme songs'. They are verses that provide inspiration. Anyone who reads this poem aloud will find themselves sitting straighter, with the petty annoyances of the day suddenly forgotten.

I learned it as a child from my grandmother and I find it especially useful at times when I catch myself lapsing into hopeless self-pity. Once you recite these stirring cadences, 'I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul', it's hard to look on a cancelled train or even the broken boiler as an insurmountable tragedy. …