The film Invictus tells the story of how in 1995 Nelson Mandela enlisted the help of South Africa’s National Rugby team in order to unite the country and end prejudices associated with Apartheid. The film stars Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as South African rugby star Francois Pienaar, but this is more than a sports film. One mise-en-scene features a visit to the real Robben’s Island Prison, where Mandela was held as a political prisoner for 27 years.
The film footage shows the cell where Mandela served his sentence before his release in February 1990. As the camera pans around the prison, the voice of Freeman recites William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus
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.
I am familiar enough with the poem that I do not need to look it up or “cut and paste” the text.
I can recite this poem cold.
So can the grade 12 seniors at Brookfield High School in CT (my tenure 1999-2008) who traditionally memorized the poem and recited its 16 lines for an English grade.
The “Invictus Day” tradition was begun to honor an English teacher who had passed away; the tradition was sustained by her colleague, Carole Smith, who would prepare “Invictus” sheets for students to carry with them to practice. A rubric was on the back that provided selected teachers a rubric to grade the quality of the recitation: A for a spectacular recitation (with feeling; no errors); B for a good recitation (one error allowed); C for an average recitation (errors allowed). A student had only one shot for an A; a teacher would sign off on the quality, but if there was a single flub, the highest grade that could be achieved was a B. Fortunately, the weight of the “Invictus” grade was nominal, however, the honor of getting an A for recitation was an achievement regardless of weight.
“Invictus Day” was an unannounced event held usually in late October or early November. Members of the faculty wore black, and seniors went scurrying to their lockers for their sheets. In Harry Potter-esque fashion, teachers would point at a senior with a finger and command, “INVICTUS”! The senior would be required to drop everything, hand over the sheet, and begin reciting, “Out of the night that covers me…”
There was a great deal of cowering, creeping, lurking, prowling, skulking, and stalking on “Invictus Day”…on the part of both students and faculty. Some students took full advantage of the dramatic encounters by shouting the poem at the top of their lungs or climbing on tables or desks to recite for a crowd of delighted underclassmen. Others clung together to recite chorally, while the more timid seniors were given the opportunity to pull a teacher aside to recite and “get this over with!” Every year, a student would sing the poem to a familiar tune; one year, a student had a completely original melody with back-up singers. Once a student was graded, or “invicted”, he or she could show the sheet as a pass. Once invicted, a student could not be forced to recite again.
My favorite story of “Invictus Day” was of a one student who advertised his plans for presenting the poem. He prepared to recite the poem holding a heavy plaster skull, a la Hamlet. Hearing this, I convinced the members of the faculty not to invict him. The idea that he would carry the skull for several days was amusing to the faculty and to the student body. November came and went, and so did December and January. By late March, the student was pleading for someone to “invict me” so that he could rid himself of the skull he had been toting for months. Fortunately, he had been cast as a lead in the school musical. One warm April night, at the end of the final night’s production, he ran forward to take his well-deserved bow. As he stood up, I stepped out from the wings and onto the stage and cried, “Invictus!” There was a split second of shock in his eyes, but he bounded backstage and seconds later reappeared with the skull to recite the poem to a full house. There was a standing ovation; his performance for both the musical and the poem deserved the audience’s applause.
The obvious message of the poem is the control of one’s fate, and that makes the poem perfectly suited for seniors who will be steering their own destinies once they graduate. They may go to colleges, training schools, the military, or they make seek their futures in other pursuits, but who they will be after the thirteen years of mandated education is largely up to them. Holding the poem’s message in their heads, and in their hearts, can serve to guide them through rough waters of adulthood.
The same could be said for the use of the poem in the film Invictus. Four years after his release from his 27 years in Robben Island’s prison, Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa. He had made great sacrifices in bringing the horrors of Apartheid to an end, but his belief in a united South Africa had prevailed.
This past Thursday, July 18, 2013, Mandela turned 95 years old.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Mandela, your life story is affirmation of Henley’s message:
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.