As we discovered in Invictus, William Ernest Henley‘s  life as a child and young man was ravaged by the disease John Bunyan called the ‘captain of all these men of Death‘. Yet, Henley survived and thrived against adversity and remained ‘captain of his soul’. Just one the adversities Henley faced was being on the sharp end of the surgeon’s knife. Having lost a leg to tuberculosis he had an intimate knowledge of what ‘going under’ meant in 19th century England.

Here is Henley’s evocation of the ‘Operation':

You are carried in a basket,
Like a carcass from the shambles,
To the theatre, a cockpit
Where they stretch you on a table.

Then they bid you close your eyelids,
And they mask you with a napkin,
And the anaesthetic reaches
Hot and subtle through your being.

And you gasp and reel and shudder
In a rushing, swaying rapture,
While the voices at your elbow
Fade — receding — fainter — farther.

Lights about you shower and tumble,
And your blood seems crystallising —
Edged and vibrant, yet within you
Racked and hurried back and forward.

Then the lights grow fast and furious,
And you hear a noise of waters,
And you wrestle, blind and dizzy,
In an agony of effort,

Till a sudden lull accepts you,
And you sound an utter darkness….
And awaken… with a struggle…
On a hushed, attentive audience.

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