Monday, January 31, 2011


By William Ernest Henley

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 punishment the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

This is a memorization assignment in my class.  No one memorizes these days.  Kids don't know phone numbers.  (They are programmed into cell phones.)  Some don't even know their multiplication tables.  They certainly don't do the memorization that our parents and grandparents did in the old one room country schools.  Back then they memorized scriptures or a poem every week. (And Dad could still recite them well into my teen years. Heck, he probably still can.)

Do the students fight me on memorizing? Almost every step of the way.  Do I let them off?  Absolutely not.  I prompt.  I give second, third, and fourth chances.  And every student memorizes the poem.

So why do I make them memorize a poem that many critics consider a "B list" poem?  I don't care what the critics say.  There are a couple of lines that I hope resonate with them forever.

The title means unconquerable or invincible.  We aren't.  (The author knew this first hand.)  Cancer, strokes, accidents, or even tornadoes remind us how fragile we really are. 

Students of Tiny Town get what it means to be bludgeoned by chance.  After all, what were the odds of a tornado hitting our town, wiping out every school, and most of our churches in one fell swoop?  If you had seen Tiny Town the morning after, you would have seen a town "bludgeoned" almost to death.

These past few years, I've had to do less explaining of what it means to be in the clutches of circumstance. All the students had to do was look around at our Trailer High.  "Circumstance" had us firmly by the collar.

So what are the lines I hope they remember?  "And yet the menace of the years finds, and shall find me, unafraid."  For the rest of their lives, that will be the difference between success and failure: facing life's problems with courage.

"I am the master of my fate:  I am the captain of my soul."  It isn't what happens to us.  It's how we deal with the things that happen to us. 

Obstacles will arise.  Tragedies are going to occur.  We can't control all of the things that happen to us.  The only thing we can control is how we face the problems we encounter. The only thing we can control is our own attitude.

And that is how we "Master our fates."  We aren't invincible.  But... we can be courageous. I hope they remember that.


Debra Wood said...

Love this.

A said...

It's funny how this poem seemed so much longer when I was a sophomore! I love this, and I think I could recite it still!

Katie (Can't Get There) said...

I love the line "In the fell clutch of circumstance..."

I explained to my 4-year-old that being brave means you're scared but you do it anyway.