December 2, 2020
By Margaret Rozga, Wisconsin Poet Laureate
How to sum up 2020? It challenged us. It continues to challenge. The pandemic radically changed both large contours and small details of our lives. Its disproportionate effect on communities of color and the killings of African Americans by police made issues of unresolved racial inequality in our state and the nation more evident. Divisive politics from the White House to the state Legislature exacerbated tensions.
What is poetry’s role in view of these and other life challenges? Poetry can provide words that inspire and give courage. This is the view of Dr. Robert S. Smith, Harry John Professor of History and Director of the Center for Urban Research, Teaching, and Outreach (CURTO) at Marquette University. He turns to the inspiring words of his favorite poem, “Invictus,” by William Ernest Henley (1849-1903) in his own difficult times.
Though Henley’s name may no longer be familiar, he was among the most popular British poets of the Victorian era. His poetry with its themes of inner strength and perseverance grew out of his personal story and it brought him popular admiration and acclaim. He lost one leg due to tubercular arthritis, and rather than also lose his remaining leg, he sought out a doctor who was able to save the leg though it took multiple surgeries. The title of the poem is the Latin word for unconquered, and the second stanza of “Invictus” conveys a sense of Henley’s unconquerable personal courage and determination.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed
“At various moments different stanzas resonate more boldly. But I do recite the last stanza to myself most often,” said Dr. Smith. The concluding two lines of that last stanza of Henley’s poem present what are among the most often quoted lines of English poetry.
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.
The powerful, rhythmically strong assertion in these lines has given courage to nations as well as individuals. Winston Churchill referenced these lines in his speech to the House of Commons in September 1941 to rally Britain in the fight against the Nazis in World War II. During the 28 years Nelson Mandela was imprisoned at Robben Island, he recited the poem to other prisoners as a way to give both them and himself courage.
President Barack Obama turned to this last stanza to conclude his speech at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in South Africa.
Dr. Smith explains that the poem helps him see beyond whatever might be current difficulties. He said, “[It] also reminds me that facing my fears, especially in those dark times, is exactly what is needed to get to the other side. Fear and suffering are major parts of life, but they can’t immobilize us.”
Continuing to move forward in the face of challenges shapes character as Professor Smith observed, “On the other side of a difficult season is a life that is greatly informed by those challenges.”
He carries this belief into his role as a parent. “The poem reminds me of the courage I must role model so that my son has an example of courage in the face of the challenges he will endure,” he said.
Professor Smith also approaches his work as history professor and CURTO director with the goal of furthering the values of perseverance and courage “Invictus” extols. He sees these values in the history of the long civil rights struggle, subject matter he teaches in his university courses. Similarly, the CURTO’s research and its community collaborations, outreach programs, and events foster a vision that empowers participants.
As one of CURTO’s initiatives prior to the pandemic, Dr. Smith brought Milwaukee area high school students to the Marquette campus for day and half-day seminars exploring topics of community concern. I was invited to participate as one of the panelists about Milwaukee’s civil rights history that focused on the 200 consecutive nights of marching in 1967-68 for local and national fair housing legislation. As each panelist presented a personal story, the students could see how individual commitment and perseverance can lead to a movement for social justice. We also joined the students for lunch where conversations continued on an informal basis.
Undeterred by the pandemic, Dr. Smith has organized virtual programs with the same goal of knowledge-sharing that is both in-depth and accessible.
Extraordinary challenges have been presented in 2020, including racial inequities, the pandemic, and its effects on the economy. Where there is a will there may be a way, if we have the courage and perseverance to find it. Before and during this challenging year, Dr. Smith’s favorite poem “Invictus” has given him a source of that courage.
To read the entire poem: poetryfoundation.org/poems/51642/Invictus.