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You have to ask, what were they thinking?  What was going through their minds?

By what process did the admen behind this advert think of using ‘Invictus’ – William Ernest Henley’s beautiful short poem – to sell a Bank?

Did they not understand what the poem was about?  Did they think banking would somehow make us master of our fate?

‘Invictus’ told of the author’s nobility and courage in his near-death fight with tuberculosis.  How this could ever be confused with the dubious ethics that inspire financial greed, shows how much literature and art is ultimately used to maintain the status in the quo.

Henley was 12 when he fell ill with tuberculosis of the bone.  By his late teens, the disease had spread to his foot.  Though Henley coped bravely his life was ultimately marked down by the disease.  By the age of twenty-five, physicians told Henley the only way they could save his life was to amputate his leg below the knee.

His leg was amputated in 1875, and Henley successfully went on to live a full life until the age of 53.

But as the young poet lay in his hospital bed, suffering the pain, considering the loss of his limb, and the continuing threat of death, Henley wrote a poem that took his own personal suffering and sacrifice, as an example for others to follow, in order to achieve self-autonomy.  That by courage and strength, we may all be captains of our souls.

Originally titled by its dedication ‘To R. T. H. B.’ (the patron Robert Thomas Hamilton Bruce), Henley’s poem was retitled ‘Invictus’ (Latin for ‘unconquered’) when it was included in ‘The Oxford Book of English Verse’.

Sad to say, Henley’s noble sentiment is considered out of date in our self-serving and litigious world, but its true meaning is a something we should all take to heart.

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 gait,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.



“Hey, Johnny, What are you rebelling against?”
“What’ve you got?”

Strange to think now, but back in 1954 ‘The Wild One‘ was considered such a serious threat to British society that it was banned by the Board of Film Censors for 14 years.

It was believed that Marlon Brando and his band of slovenly bikers would give youngsters “ideas on how to brutalize the public”. More understandable once you know the film is loosely based on a real event, when a band of bikers took over the town of Holister in California in July 1947, during the Gypsy Tour Motorcycle Rally. Around 50 people were arrested, mainly for drunkeness, fighting, reckless driving, and disturbing the peace. 60 people were injured, 3 seriously. Even so, it’s hard to picture how the chubby Brando and his non-sensical mumblings could have inspired anyone.

Afterall, Britain wasn’t America, as John Lennon later found out when he went to his local fleapit to take part in the alleged riots inspired by Bill Haley and his Comets in ‘Rock Around the Clock‘. Instead of seat slashing and fighting in the aisles, Lennon was dumbstruck to find orderly youngsters appreciatively watching the screen.

If the film did inspire any rebellion, then it was in the imagination of a young poet called Thom Gunn.

Gunn saw ‘The Wild One‘ in America, where it inspired him to write the generation defining poem ‘On the Move‘.

“On motorcycles, up the road, they come:
Small, black, as flies hanging in heat, the Boy,
Until the distance throws them forth, their hum
Bulges to thunder held by calf and thigh.
In goggles, donned impersonality,
In gleaming jackets trophied with the dust,
They strap in doubt–by hiding it, robust–
And almost hear a meaning in their noise.”

Gunn’s poem critiqued the film’s sensibility, its search for purpose for meaning, while noticing the underlying homo-eroticism, contained within the denim and leather of its biker heroes.

“Men manufacture both machine and soul,
And use what they imperfectly control
To dare a future from the taken routes.”

‘The Wild One’ presented a portrait of a world where the individual could control their own destiny.  This appealed to Gunn, who was a young gay man at time when homosexuality was a criminal offence in Britain.  To the poet, Brando and his rebellious cohorts presented a sharp contrast to the gray and repressive world Gunn inhabited. .

“A minute holds them, who have come to go:
The self-denied, astride the created will.
They burst away; the towns they travel through
Are home for neither birds nor holiness,
For birds and saints complete their purposes.”

Gunn’s analysis inOn the Move‘ provides a literal manifesto, that later became the poet’s own.

“At worse, one is in motion; and at best,
Reaching no absolute, in which to rest,
One is always nearer by not keeping still.”

For Gunn never kept still. He followed his lover to America, where the tolerance he found in San Francisco changed his verse style from English tradition to American idiom; from strict form to free verse. In the same way Gunn by day was a disciplined intellectual and by night a physical hedonist, who cruised for sex and indulged in drugs.

However, the excesses of his personal life never detracted from the discipline of his poetic vision. He was once described as “the only poet to have written a halfway decent quintain while on LSD.”

Gunn used his experiences as material with candour and sympathy, which led many to believe he “seemed to hold no small number of life’s mysteries and meanings within his grasp.”   A truth that is more than evident when you read his brilliant, beautiful and inspiring poetry.


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