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Nelson Mandela, 2000

Image by LSE Library via Flickr

I have heard much about Nelson Mandela‘s 27 years in prison and his eventual release and election as South Africa’s first president in a representative democratic election.  But I didn’t know how he survive those long, drawn-out years in a tiny prison cell on Robben Island, until I saw the movie Invictus.

In a conversation on the big screen with Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon, the captain of South Africa’s rugby team), Mandela (Morgan Freeman) shared with Pienaar that during his darkest moments in prison, his spirit was lifted and sustained by the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley, and that he would not have made it through prison if not for the words of this English poet who lived from 1849 to 1903.

In that instant, I was reminded of the power of words to heal and inspire.  I was also reminded how our lives are more intertwined than we realize.  After the movie, I researched further and learned that Henley had written the poem from a hospital bed during a traumatic time after his leg was amputated.  I am sure he didn’t know that one day, many years later, his poem would deeply touch and save another great man – Nelson Mandela – who survived his darkest years to become South Africa’s “national liberator, savior, its George Washington and Abraham Lincoln rolled into one (Newsweek).”

I am completely blown away that a poem had saved Mandela’s life and perhaps changed the course of history forever.   Its message is simple.  Indeed Henley and Mandela led by example and showed us how to be “the masters of our fate, the captains of our souls.”

Well, without further ado, here’s the poem, may you be inspired!


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.

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21 Responses to “How Did a Poem Save Nelson Mandela’s Life?”

  1. Julie says:

    Sharon, thanks for posting. I loved the movie, I bought the book, and I’m inspired by the words of the Invictus poem.

    I thought you might want to know about the 46664 Bangle initiative http://www.theBangle.com where every wrist bracelet sold donates funds to the 46664 campaign of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. During the Invictus film as they walk through the Robben Island prison, they explain Nelson Mandela’s prison number was 46664 (prisoner number 466, imprisoned in the year ’64). This number is now an international symbol for Mr. Mandela’s humanitarian work worldwide, and it is engraved on every bangle, along with a digital imprint of Nelson Mandela’s hand.

    The bangle project also empowers those affected by HIV AIDS by providing employment in South Africa through the production of the bangles and the handmade packaging. The jewelry carries a global message about HIV AIDS prevention and social responsibility as people worldwide wear the bangle with pride, inspired by the leadership of Mr. Mandela.

    Thanks for reading,

  2. Naren says:

    Awesome! Thanks for sharing this. I love these two lines

    “Under the bludgeonings of chance
    My head is bloody, but unbowed.”

  3. Melinda says:

    Great post, Sharon. I’d heard (and loved) the last two lines, but I’d never read the whole poem. Thanks for sharing it!

  4. Clico says:

    Awesome! thanks for inspiring me to face the tough day ahead..

  5. Sharon says:

    Naren, Melinda, Cilco,
    I appreciate your kind words and comments about this post and for your support. I also “thank whatever gods may be, for our unconquerable souls” so we may be “the masters of our fate, the captains of our souls.”

    Here’s wishing you a fulfilling and inspired New Year!
    Cilco, take good care and hope your day turns out well.

  6. zaman says:

    Thank you, the movie made me realise that the power of forgiveness is more powerful than anything that could be generated by fear and intolerance.

    I am praying for the coming of the Malaysian Mandela.

  7. Alex says:

    Sorry to disappoint everyone but the most famous use of ‘Invictus’ was that it was used as Timothy McVeigh’s last words… the film substitutes Invictus for ‘The Man in the Arena’ a speech by US president Theodore Roosevelt

  8. 2mashaa says:

    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.

    I love love loooooooooooooove …….this

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  11. John Smith says:

    Fantastically enlightening appreciate it, It is my opinion your trusty subscribers would possibly want further writing like this keep up the good work.

  12. Mvumbi Samu says:

    The film gives me a lot of lessons and the poem inspires me too. “In the fell clutch of circumstance
    I have not winced nor cried aloud.”
    I think this shows perseverance. Thanks


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  15. Jr says:

    It is good to see so many individuals still havinf faith in humanitarian. I also like this poem so much. Thanks Sharon for posting it and inspiring other in their darkest moments.

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  17. don-in-japan says:

    It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

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