With the English team’s progress to the next round assured, I have chosen Invictus by William Ernest Henley as this week’s poem. This was read and admired by Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, or so we are led to believe in the recent film Invictus. An old-fashioned film, in many ways, this charts the success , against the odds, of the South African rugby team in the 1995 World Cup. In the film, Nelson Mandela offered the poem to Francois Pienaar the captain of the Springboks to inspire him and his team to victory. What appealed to Mandela in his prison cell and what he chose to share with the man carrying the nation’s hearts into battle against the mighty All Blacks was surely the poem’s rousing assertion of individual strength in the face of adversity. The poet suffered childhood illness and later had one leg amputated below the knee. Invictus was written from his hospital bed. The poem may itself be old-fashioned, but dogged determination shines through. I fancy it is emblematic of South Africa’s continuing journey. I offer it here in honour of the host nation and in support of the English team’s renewed endeavours!


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.

William Ernest Henley

I would be grateful for your thoughts on this poem and your suggestions for other texts with World Cup applicability.


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