William Ernest Henley

William Ernest Henley (1849 - 1903) was an English poet, critic and editor. At age 12 Henley began to suffer from tuberculosis of the bone and a few years later his left leg had to be amputated. Later his right leg became infected but he resisted suggestions it also had to be amputated. Instead he sought treatment under the pioneering surgeon Joseph Lister and spent about twenty months in the hospital. His most famous work is a short poem "Invictus" which he wrote in 1875 while in a hospital bed. The poem, first published in 1888, expresses resiliency in the face of adversity. It ends with the oft quoted words "I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul." The poem originally did not have a title but it was named "Invictus" when it was later published in The Oxford Book Of English Verse. The title of the 2009 movie about Nelson Mandela and South Africa "Invictus" came from the fact that Mandela kept a copy of the poem during his years in prison.

Clarence Darrow scoffed at free will and he used Henley's words to criticize it. In a lecture titled "Facing Life Fearlessly: The Pessimistic Versus The Optimistic View Of Life" before a combined audience of the Poetry Club and the Liberal Club of the University of Chicago Darrow told the audience:

"The English poet Henley, in one of his poems, probably expressed this about as well as anybody. It looks to me as if he had a case of the rabies or something like that. But people are fond of repeating it. In his brief poem about Fate he says:

I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul.

A fine captain of his soul; and a fine master of his fate! He wasn't master enough of his fate to get himself born, which is rather important, nor to do much of anything else, except brag about it. Instead of being the captain of his soul, as I have sometimes expressed it, man isn't even a deck-hand on a rudderless ship! He is just floating around and trying to hang on, and hanging on as long as he can. But if it does him any good to repeat Henley, or other nonsense, it is all right to give him a chance to do it, because he hasn't much to look forward to, any way."