English professor Marion Hoctor: The meaning of 'Invictus'
(CNN) -- Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh left the Victorian poem "Invictus" as his last message to the world before he was executed Monday. (See image of McVeigh's handwritten statement)
An expert in Medieval and 19th century poetry, Sister Marion Hoctor, professor of English at Nazareth College of Rochester, New York, spoke to CNN.com about the poem and its author, British poet, critic and editor William Ernest Henley.
CNN: Why this poem?
HOCTOR: I think the fact that this poem spoke to (McVeigh) in such a way that he used it as his last statement -- I think Timothy McVeigh really understood what this poem says. Although it is sometimes viewed as inspirational, it is really about stoicism.
McVeigh saw something of the anguish of this poem, but he uses it to justify something that neither the poet or anyone else would see as justifiable.
CNN: How does this poem fit in the prevailing philosophy of the Victorian age?
HOCTOR: What one would say about major Victorian writers and thinkers is that they set aside Christianity -- the dominant form of religion then -- some of them regretfully set it aside and said it belongs to another world. They believed there are dark and complex questions in this world that religion cannot address.
The poem is powerful expression of stoicism -- you fall back on your own resources, you donít fall back on religious resources. If you are going to truly be "invictus" -- which is Latin for unconquered -- you must be true to your own convictions.
So "Invictus" means "I have not been conquered." The business about the gods, where Henley writes "I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul", is quite dismissive. "Gods" is lower-case, and the line says they "may be." He's saying "I'm in possession of my fate, I have been strong, I haven't cried, or winced" in the face of the "bludgeoning of chance." Henley is referring to the death of his child and health problems -- which left him terribly wounded, but not unbowed.
The last two lines sum up stoicism beautifully -- I remember McVeigh's attorneys saying that McVeigh was not prepared to consider in any way that what he had done was wrong, and I think those lines express that.
He chose this four-stanza poem as a more eloquent way of conveying to the rest of the world what his philosophy is and his sense of self. One cannot help but wonder what William Ernest Henley would have thought of this.
The lines describe determination and a summoning up of every ounce of strength -- to overcome with courage and strength which is my own and is not siphoned off from an archaic religious tradition.
In Hebrew, "I am" is the word for God -- (I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul). I think Henley would have known that, but I'm not sure McVeigh would. It means the deity is within us, and was written by someone who had suffered terribly -- but, of course, had not inflicted suffering on anyone else.
The poem represents secular humanism, the spirit of the Victorian age, you could say, the rise of Darwin and the sciences as a challenge to traditional thought and creationism. Really Matthew Arnold, a contemporary of Henley's, wrote of the same spirit.
Henley's other poems wouldn't be recognized. Henley can't compete with his contemporaries, such as Tennyson, Arnold, Browning, and Thomas Hardy -- the real luminaries of this period.
"Invictus" was his 15 minutes of fame.
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