Invictus: Still I Rise

"I thank whatever gods may be, for my unconquerable soul."

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

Victorian poet William Ernest Henley (1849 – 1903) developed tuberculosis of the bone as a young boy. Due to complications from the disease, Henley required long stays in the hospital and the eventual amputation of his left leg to save his life. When the disease spread to his other leg, he spent three years in the hospital. It was during this time that Henley wrote the poem "Invictus."

"Invictus" is William Ernest Henley's song of defiance. Against death, against fate, against the very will of his body. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013) used William Ernest Henley's "Invictus" as a statement of courage against oppression.

Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014) was an American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist. Mostly self-educated, she grew a love for poetry as a means of overcoming childhood trauma and abuse. In 1976, Maya Angelou wrote "Still I Rise" as her statement of defiance.

Like "Invictus", "Still I Rise" is an expression of the indomitable spirit that sustains those who live under hardship — giving strength to those without light.

Seamlessly blended excerpts from both works, with my own personal reflections:

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.
— William Ernest Henley

In spite of the ever looming presence of death, in spite of misfortune than can render me "black as the pit from pole to pole," I will not lose spirit. And I thank "whatever gods may be" for instilling in me the spirit of defiance.

Still I Rise

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
— Maya Angelou

It's natural for humans to rise against bonds of subjugation. As long as there is life, there is hope. With the same certainty of the tides, I will rise.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
— William Ernest Henley

I can't control all circumstances, but I can control my responses. And it's going to sting. Like an animal caged by chance, I may escape, but I will not go unscathed. Yes, it is not my fault, it is not fair, I am a victim of fate, but none of that matters, it is what I do from here — that is what matters. You will not see me cry.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
— Maya Angelou

What did you expect? How else should I act? Did you think I'd break so easily? You will not see me cry.

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.
— William Ernest Henley

Even if things get worse from here, even if my physical body grows weak with age, my spirit will remain unafraid — for what is here now, and what is still yet to come. Though I may change, the spirit will not.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
— Maya Angelou

I will survive the test. I know you have plenty. But I will keep overcoming. Because, unlike you, I am not doing this for novel cruelty. I will rise because I have to. I must triumph. I must.

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.
— William Ernest Henley

My will refuses to bend. No matter the restrictions, no matter the judgments, I will make it. I decide my own fate. I steer my own course.

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.
— Maya Angelou

Perhaps it is not in spite of our limitations; perhaps some of us draw strength from our limitations. Rather than limits being the furthest point we can go, we will defy our limitations. We will not shrink into the night.

I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

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