Poetry, Reality and Mandela

I finally saw Invictus. Mandela did keep the poem with him during his time on Robben Island, even though this isn’t the words that he actually gave to the South African rugby team (as depicted in the film). It is nonetheless lovely, powerful and a poem deeply loved by Mandela:
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 or 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.
William Ernest Henley
Mandela actually gave a passage from Teddy Roosevelt’s speech, “The Man in the Arena” to Francois Pienaar before the 1995 Rugby world cup:
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 or defeat.”
Those words are similarly inspiring and give me great hope because powerful words can still come with the grammatical error of split infinitives. It also makes me sad when I read passages and poems like this because I don’t know what has happened to the English language that there are increasingly fewer and fewer examples of emotionally stirring uses of language. Even our President’s speeches seem to be lacking in emotional intensity and passion these days and recycle the same old rhetorical devices.
The movie was great. Eastwood did a good job of reminding us of the power of forgiveness. Even if I did come out of the theater cycling through in my mind a list of all of the problems with current day South Africa, I realized how lucky that nation was to have Mandela as their first democratically elected leader. I can’t even begin to imagine what the situation of that nation would be like today had there been no Mandela.

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