Nelson Mandela’s Favorite Poem

Posted on

Dec 05 2018
Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Gauteng, on 13 May 2008.

Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid leader who was jailed for his activism and in 1994 became South Africa’s first black President, regularly recited one poem during his more than twenty-five years of imprisonment—the 1875 poem “Invictus” by English poet William Ernest Henley. The poem, which helped Mandela persist through extraordinarily challenging circumstances, includes the iconic lines, “I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul.”

Mandela appreciated the important role that poetry can play in one’s life and in society. About poet Carolyn Forché’s groundbreaking anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (W. W. Norton, 1993), he wrote: “Poetry cannot block a bullet or still a sjambok, but it can bear witness to brutality—thereby cultivating a flower in a graveyard.”