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Two of the most inspirational poems that I’ve read are William Ernest Henley’s ‘Invictus’ and Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise.’ The poems both have the same message, which is to persevere. When reading the poems, one got the feeling that the authors had to be dealing with intense adversity to write their words. Although knew they had different stories because they are not from the same era. The readers wonder what was going on in their lives to make them write such inspiring poems. Whatever it was, it had to be very personal to them. William Ernest Henley and Maya Angelou had to personally suffer through adversarial situations, and those situations gave birth to two of the most motivational and inspirational pieces of literature in history.
William Ernest Henley was born in Gloucester, England in 1849. His father sold books and his mother was a descendant from a famous poet. Henley seemed destined to be a poet. He was the oldest of six children. Henley’s father died in 1868. His father’s death left his family with a lot of debt. Henley had long absences from school due to bouts of illnesses and his father’s failing business. Henley attended The Crypt School in Gloucester. The school is still operating today as an academy for grammar school boys. That’s where Henley received his foundation as a poet.
Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson in 1928. She had a lot of other occupations before settling in as a writer. Her other occupations included being a fry cook, prostitute, night club dancer, performer and cast member of an opera, journalist, and coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She became an actor, writer, and producer of plays, movies, and public television programs. While working as a dancer, Marguerite Johnson changed her name to Maya Angelou. Her managers at The Purple Onion suggested that she choose a unique name to set her apart from all the other performers.
William Ernest Henley was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the bone when he was twelve years old. He had to have his leg amputated at the age of nineteen around the same time his father died. He was plagued with long stays in the hospital because his remaining foot had also become diseased. He stayed in a hospital for three years, under the care of a famous surgeon, trying to save his foot. Henley also had a daughter who was sick for most of her short life. Henley’s daughter died at the age of five.
Maya Angelou’s life was also filled with a tremendous amount of adversity, though a different type, that gave rise to her inspirational poem. Her mother and father had a troubled marriage. She was sent by her father to live with his mother in Arkansas. A few years later her father showed up and returned her to her mother. Her mother had remarried, and her husband raped Angelou when she was young. Angelou told her family and her stepfather was arrested. He spent one day in jail. He was murdered four days later. Angelou stopped speaking because she thought that she was responsible for her stepfather’s death because she had told on him. She thought her voice killed him. Angelou also faced adversity because of her interracial relationships in a time where discrimination was at its peak. She also dealt with discrimination because she was a woman, gender bias was still hindering women from achieving their goals at the time.
William Ernest Henley’s poem ‘Invictus’ describes how he felt while he was dealing with the amputation of his leg due to tuberculosis. His opening line tells me that everyone thought his outcome would be grim. He wrote,
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pt from pole to pole
I thank whatever Gods may be
For my unconquerable soul
Henley refused to accept that his life would be compromised or that his life would be somehow less than it would be with both of his legs. He acknowledges that his situation took a toll on him but it did not defeat him. He stated that his head was bloodied but unbowed. He knew that his illness would lead to his demise, but he was not afraid to live on and eventually meet his end. He blatantly describes in the stanza where he states,
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
Henley’s last two lines of the poems make his point. He wrote, ‘I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.’ Those two lines burn the poem into memory and are very famous. It also makes Henley’s state of mind at the time very clear. He wasn’t letting his situation determine his life.
Maya Angelou’s poem ‘Still I Rise’ also describes how she refused to let anything that had happened to her keep her down. Angelou’s poem is different though, she seems to be taunting her oppressors. She described various actions that she must have seen or personally experienced that would make someone timid or somehow bring shame to a person. She says that none of that will work with her because she has her mind set on rising. Angelou gives her oppressors permission to try and do whatever they can to try and stop her from succeeding at whatever she is trying to do. She faithfully tells them it will not work with her. She is confident in her resilience. In the last stanza of the poem Angelou repeats herself over and over. And drives her point into the minds of her readers just as William Ernest Henley did with his last two lines of ‘Invictus.’ The end of both poems make them very memorable and reinforces the theme of the poems.
William Ernest Henley received both ridicule and praise for his poem ‘Invictus.’ In Best Remembered Poems, Martin Gardner writes, “The poem is a favorite of secular humanists who see themselves and the human race as unconquerable masters of their fate in a mindless universe that cares not a fig for what happens to them.” many critics ridicule the poem as mediocre at best, and most modern anthologies refuse to admit it to their pages. One reason for the snubbing is the poem’s seemingly melodramatic tone, like that of a windy politician declaiming from a soapbox. Another reason is its singsong versification. That’s what makes the poem so easy to remember. It’s a poem of empowerment and it speaks about the human spirit.
Maya Angelou’s poem ‘Still I Rise’ received many positive reviews from critics. The poem roots itself in the history of the African-American people, with its talk of slavery, and that gorgeous image of the “black ocean, leaping and wide” — such a powerful metaphor for overcoming oppression. But the poem’s scope is not limited to one people; it speaks of the universal notion of the defiance of the downtrodden. Angelou’s voice is resounding and sensually rhythmic, and carries so beautifully her message of strength and positivity.
This is probably Maya Angelou’s best-known poem, and for good reason. It is a wonderfully defiant, human, uplifting cry from the deep heart of America, which tells a story that I’m sure speaks to us all.
Both poems are very inspirational. They motivate people to persevere and push on despite adversity. Every human that lives will face some form of resistance to a carefree life. We must overcome our obstacles and live.
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