The Fell Clutch

The Fell Clutch 

Kevin McMullin

In life’s bleak stretches, when loss is a lump in my throat and the hours are awash with fatigue and futility, I turn to International Talk Like a Pirate Day and the poem, Invictus. Every holiday needs a ceremony. September 19, is my day to read Invictus. Out loud. Like a pirate. Try it yourself:

Out of the night that covers meeee

Black as the pit from pole to pole

I thank whatever gods may beeee

For my unconquerable soul. (Aye!)

(BLOCKING CUE: take a swig of rum)

Is it possible to stay depressed with these words tripping out of your mouth in a fine Barbary lilt? Not for me. In a blink my spirits are lifted as the piratical roots of the poem are brought into sharp focus, stanza by stanza. It was penned, of course, by that proverbial plunderer, Long John Silver. Well… by the fellow that inspired the character. Invictus, William Ernest Henley’s iconic poem, was written – the story goes – as a defiant retort to the amputation of his left foot. (Oh yeah? I got a quatrain for that!)  He was, by all accounts, a larger than life character, red bearded and fiery. With a crutch. His friend, Robert Louis Stevenson – the story goes again – created the character Long John Silver, with Henley in mind.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed. (Arrrrr!)

(BLOCKING CUE: take another swig of rum. Wipe mouth on sleeve)

“The fell clutch of circumstance”! Damn, I wish I’d written that! What do you say when somebody asks you how you are? Well, when the truth just sounds like whining, and nobody wants to hear it anyway, simply respond with, “I’ll tell you matey, at the present moment I find me-self in the fell clutch of circumstance.” Suddenly your condition is ennobled. There’s a spring in your step and awe (or maybe it’s anxiety) in the eyes of your inquisitor.  And that “bloodied but unbowed” bit. Very nice, indeed! No self pity here.  After a rough round in the ring this is the kind of poet you want in your corner.

Henley is one of those people who make it very hard to feel sorry for yourself, anyway. Diagnosed with tuberculosis of the bone at the age of 12, he spent a great deal of his life in the hospital. One of his best known collections, in fact, is called just that, In Hospital. Throughout his health struggles and surgeries, he edited magazines and journals, wrote insightful literary criticism and in general was enormously influential on the literary culture of his day. To paraphrase Tom Lehrer, by the time he was my age, he had been dead for seven years.

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. (Aye!)

(BLOCKING CUE: Glare with one good eye around the room)

I like the “fuck you, death” attitude of the poem. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to write a poem like this when you’ve just had your foot lopped off. It’s a good poem to read (like a pirate!) when the next hump is looking suspiciously mountainous. There’s a reason Invictus (and quotes from it) have become de rigueur  at graduation ceremonies and locker room pep talks. My wife memorized the poem in high school. Nelson Mandela kept the poem with him on Robben Island and recited it to other prisoners. It motivates. Doctors know we need that kind of motivation to get us through those bumpy bits when “recuperation” seems like way more effort than it’s worth, and the idea of “carrying on,” looks like a stunning load of bad advice given by people who don’t know what they’re talking about.

Henley knew what he was talking about. Health problems aside, he also lost his daughter when she was only five years old. (She was by some accounts – there’s that story again – the inspiration for the character Wendy in Peter Pan.)  If you’re going to be famous for the kind of inspirational poetry that will keep motivational speakers on the lecture circuit for years to come, you better have some cred. Henley had it. He walked that lonesome valley. He knew the black pit as well as anyone. There’s no dismissing Invictus as glib amphigory.

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.

Here is a constructive channel for my swirling rage. Verse to dis-invoke despair. An incantation to renounce the dark road, as seductive as night, offering oblivion’s black balm. It is not the pirate’s road, that choice. And a day of talking like a pirate is a day spent safely off of it.

Alas, September 19, only comes once a year, though I confess to celebrating a-seasonally. It must be acknowledged that talking like a pirate is not sustainable. As a ceremonial poem Invictus is spot on. As a tattoo it does not suffice. Our lives need more than defiance. Henley knew it. Much of his other work demonstrates a freer hand with verse and a more sanguine view of “the fell clutch.” Take a look at the final stanza from Margaritae Sorori:

My task accomplish’d and the long day done

My wages taken, and in my heart

Some late lark singing.

Let me be gather’d to the quiet west

The sundown splendid and serene,


This is no pirate speaking. There is an ocean voyage between Invictus and Margaritae Sorori. A voyage that pirates themselves are not famous for making. They don’t live long, for one thing. Blackbeard died before he was forty. Ditto, Calico Jack. Poets and authors often don’t fare much better. Robert Louis Stevenson died at the age of 42. (Apparently even writing about pirates can lead to an early grave.) Henley cashed in a decade later. Young men, both. The trials their short lives ushered them through seem to have granted them each some measure of serenity.

Me, I’m hoping to find an upgrade from defiance that’s not quite so pricey.