Celebrations abound! It’s the season of Mother’s Day (on Sunday) and weddings and graduations … and the usual complement of commencement speeches through which we patiently sit and to which we attempt to listen. With Hollywood celebrities, high-profile news figures, politicians, scientists (and the occasional pseudo-scientist), CEOs and sports figures, the range of speeches will run from light comedy, on the one hand, to a more serious challenge for graduates to conquer the world … or at least find a job!
Given the sheer number of commencement speeches delivered every single year, it’s worth asking: how many of the addresses will be remembered in a year … in five years? Obviously, memorability – even for an excellent communicator delivering an excellent speech – depends a great deal on whether or not the speaker touches a cord that resonates with listeners. Further, a speech that’s memorable to one may be totally forgettable to another.
Having attended my share of commencement exercises through the years, I’ve heard a variety of speeches. During the last graduation we attended, the commencement “speaker” delivered the largest part of his speech musically, as he accompanied himself on the guitar. (Yes, it was unusual and slightly offbeat.)
English poet William Ernest Henley (1849-1903) wrote his frequently cited poem Invictus in 1875. The poem often gets hauled out and read for graduation ceremonies. I’ve reproduced it below. Long ago, after hearing it read multiple times, I found a copy of the poem and studied its meaning. I decided I didn’t much care for it. The concept of thanking “whatever gods may be” for one’s “unconquerable soul” seemed kind of cheeky to me. Why would one feel the need to thank who or what they don’t believe in?
Before someone gets the wrong idea, let me emphasize I don’t go looking for trouble … honestly! Since Henley is dead, it’s not as if he’d be offended by my lack of appreciation for his poem. But every single time I heard the poem recited, I’d feel exasperation all over again. Really, it’s a fine poem and Henley was refreshingly truthful about the way he felt. (I do find that admirable.) My irritation isn’t that he rejected belief in God (or gods?). He made his own choice in the matter.
But I look at the poem as misleading. In general, people appreciate the idea of being “the captain” of their souls … except no one is! If we think we’re “masters of our fate” and “captains of our souls,” it’s nothing but a slick delusion! One may try to master his or her own fate, but oftentimes, circumstances way beyond our control play the bigger part. One doesn’t have to look far for an example. Sticking with the ship metaphor, consider the captain of the Titanic. He may have been the commander of his vessel, but a seemingly insignificant bump with an iceberg plunged that unsinkable craft into the deep. Was he truly the “master” of his fate?
I let Henley’s poem work its way through my subconscious over a period of years. Eventually, I composed a response, the sonnet I’ve included below.