Part I: Statement in Poetry
Part II: External Evidence
Part III: Scansion
(This article should probably be first, not fourth, which is what happens when you embark on a series without any idea where you’re going.)
There are, fundamentally, two ways to read a poem: privately or publicly. A popular but bad poem best illustrates the difference. Since I have an especially persistent correspondent defending it, W.E. Henley’s “Invictus” will serve:
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.
Let’s look at this poem closely. In the first stanza, why would night, a normal enough event, inspire the poet to give thanks for his unconquerable soul? The night may be metaphoric — one hopes so, since literal night is never black from pole to pole unless you’re sleeping in a tent — but still, one wonders, what is the trouble exactly?
In the second stanza we have the clichÃ© “fell clutch.” “Winced nor” is both unnecessary and impossible to pronounce. Chance, not usually very thuggish, more a burglar than an armed robber, appears in the next line to do some bludgeoning, of all things. The last line is deservedly famous and is by far the best line in the poem.
The third stanza confronts us with “place of wrath and tears” as if the contemporaneous “vale of tears” weren’t bad enough. “[T]he Horror of the shade” or a phrase very like it appears in every third poem of the period.
The last stanza introduces the customary Heavenly machinery of gate, punishment and scroll. The poet, who is agnostic (“whatever gods may be”), imagines the afterlife as a possibility, and then asserts, curiously, in the famous close, that he is the master of his fate and captain of his soul regardless. Yet this surely depends on whether this imagined afterlife is real. I don’t think so, but the poet, on the evidence, isn’t sure.
“Invictus” is a bad poem, bad in detail and bad in execution, with one excellent and two other memorable lines. It is bad chiefly because motive is ill-adjusted to emotion. The poet is considerably wrought up about his unconquerable soul and defiant attitude, but he never provides a motive for this emotion, beyond some vague allusions to night, circumstance, chance, and the fact of his mortality. I am unconvinced by the phrase “the place of wrath and tears” that this world is so awful to inhabit. The reader who enjoys this poem supplies his own motive. Many readers are willing to do so, and the pleasure that they take in this poem is genuine. Popular poems are frequently on the “Invictus” model: they contain a couple of famous lines and a lot of unspecified motive for the reader to fill in. Yeats’s “The Second Coming”, Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” and MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica” are all of this type.
The reader who enjoys this sort of poetry indulges in a private reading. He is interested in his own feelings, not what is written on the page. Those feelings may be profound, but they have nothing to do with the poem. Suppose the first time you kissed a girl was at a junior high school dance and the band was playing “Desperado.” Now “Desperado” is your favorite song, God help you, for reasons that have nothing to do with any actual merits it may possess. Same thing here.
When you insist on a public reading, on restricting yourself to what’s on the page, you sacrifice a certain amount of immediate warmth and sympathy, a visceral appreciation for poems like “Invictus,” for the ability to enter completely into greater minds than your own, operating at their peak. You sacrifice heat for cold. It’s worth it.