I don’t know why I’m so tempted to argue with literature. It rarely amounts to much. Rewriting or arguing against something that has led people astray can sometimes help people in the future, but it can’t always change the impact that piece of literature has made on a person, regardless of how sound the argument is.

History shows, however, that I’m not alone in feeling an urge to argue with literature. People have been doing it for a long time now. In the early 1900s, a writer named Dorothy Day composed a poem that was written in response to another poem written in the late 1800s by William Ernest Henley called “Invictus,” a poem which has mantained its popularity over the years.  Perhaps you’ve heard of it. It begins like this:

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.

 If that doesn’t ring a bell yet, you may recognize the poem’s final stanza, which is perhaps the most well-known portion of the poem:

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.

You may recognize the name “Invictus” from the 2009 film of the same name that focuses on a portion of the life of Nelson Mandela and his involvement in a South African rugby team. Mandela was very fond of the poem, and he has not been the only one to glean inspiration from it.

Dorothy Day’s poem, which is far less popular, was written as a response to the poem. Her’s was written from a Christian perspective, replacing the self-reliant nature of the poem with a Christ-reliant alternative. Her poem ends this way:

I have no fear though straight the gate:

He cleared from punishment the scroll.

Christ is the Master of my fate!

Christ is the Captain of my soul!

I found out about Dorothy Day’s poem through researching various reactions to the original poem. I’ve heard the poem read many times, and I’ve seen it mentioned even more, but there is always a stark difference of opinion when people cite the poem. For some, the poem is incredibly inspirational with its “no-surrender” attitude and its message that we can choose the choices we make. For others, however, the poem is very troubling, as it promotes self-reliance and a disregard for any higher power. There rarely seems to be any middle ground between the two camps.

When I discovered Dorothy Day’s poem, I was encouraged that someone of the Christian faith had not only responded to the poem, but had done so in poetic fashion. In terms of giving a theologically sound rebuttal, Dorothy Day’s poem responds about as well as any poet could have. But even so, I still felt a bit unsatisfied after I read it.

As much as Henley’s poem troubles me with its message, there’s one particular line from his poem that keeps coming back around in my mind. It’s the first line of the final stanza—”It matters not how strait the gate.” As much as Henley seems to be rejecting the need for a higher power, I can’t help but feel that he got something right with that line. Day’s poem replaces the line with “I have no fear though straight the gate,” which works just fine, but in a way, I wish that she had left Henley’s original line alone as a nod to him, as if to say, “I think you were on to something here.”

That line sticks out to me because it reminds me of two things. Perhaps the more obvious connection of the two is the line’s reference to Jesus’ words in Matthew 7: “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” Later on, after a conversation with a rich man, Jesus told his disciples that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to inherit the kingdom of God. They asked him, “Who then can be saved?” to which he replied, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

There’ve been many people who have tried to water down that verse to say that Jesus wasn’t saying it’s impossible, but that it’s just very difficult. But that’s not what it says. Now hold that thought.

The second thing that Henley’s line reminds me of is William Shakespeare’s Sonnet CXVI, which happens to be one of my favorite poems ever. In the poem, Shakespeare speaks about what love is not, saying that it’s not something that alters when it finds the opportunity, or that shakes at the sight of tempests, or that moves from one place to another. And then he gives what is perhaps one of my favorite lines in all of poetry: “Love’s not time’s fool.”

What he is saying there is that love isn’t under time’s control—genuine love doesn’t fade over time. It doesn’t grow frail or tired from age. As he would put it, love “bears it out even to the edge of doom.”

When I think about Shakespeare’s poem along with Jesus’ words about inheriting eternal life, I can’t help but feel that Henley was right when he said, It matters not how strait the gate.” The straitness—or narrowness for non King James speakers—of the gate doesn’t determine our fate. Inheriting eternal life isn’t like playing the lottery, where buying extra tickets broadens the gate, so to speak. It’s not a game of chance. The only certainty is in Christ, for in Christ, It matters not how strait the gate.” Christ’s love for us is not the fool of chance, or time, or status, or anything. As Shakespeare would say, “It is an ever-fixed mark.”

Dorothy Day’s poem had everything right as far as the truth was concerned, but because her poem was so starkly in contrast to Henley’s poem, there seemed to be no bridge between the two, no way to possibly redeem some of Henley’s words. I realized that what I was looking for was a bridge-poem, something to span the gulf between the two, so that rather than totally dismissing Henley’s poem, I might could bring his poem to the place of Dorothy Day’s poem. What I needed was a poem that hadn’t quite reached the full revelation of Dorothy Day’s poem, but that had somehow grown from Henley’s poem. There was one word I needed to find, one word that would bring a subtler revelation to Henley’s poem, and that would leave room for someday reaching the place of Dorothy Day’s poem. For me, that word was chance.

It matters not how strait the gate, 

How charged with punishments the scroll, 

Chance is not master of my fate, 

Chance is not captain of my soul.

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