Featured Poem: Invictus by William Ernest Henley

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Invictus
By William Ernest Henley

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 the punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

 

Never underestimate the transformative power of a well-crafted poem. Some poems are cathartic. They have the power to move their readers to tears or to laughter, melancholia or euphoria.  Others offer sensible life advice under the guise of metaphors and sweeping or epic imageries. They offer life lessons without getting too direct or didactic. But rarest and most precious of all, are the poems that inspire dramatic and lasting perspective and change. These are the poems that change lives and bolster the human spirit.

William Ernest Henley’s eminently popular work Invictus is the embodiment of life-changing poetry. It is a poem that has inspired some of the greatest minds in history. In his September 1941 speech at the House of Commons, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke of the imminent threat of World War II. During the speech, he affirmed the strength and resilience of his constituents, paraphrasing the final two lines of Invictus with the famous statement, “We are still masters of our fate. We are still captains of our souls.”

And, of course, there’s also the unforgettable anecdote about the late, great South African leader Nelson Mandela. During his long imprisonment in Robben Island, Nelson Mandela recited the poem to his fellow prisoners to help raise their flagging spirits. Mandela, himself, had pulled great strength from the rousing words of W.E. Henley.

Invictus, with its timeless and universal theme of resilience and indomitability in the face of hardship and near-certain defeat, has deeply resonated with many of the world’s most memorable leaders. And it continues to inspire its readers today. Its acknowledgment of human suffering and assertion of humanity’s inner strength makes Invictus one of the most powerful and inspirational poems to have ever been written.

The birth of Invictus 

Before we get to the meat of the analysis, here’s a background on the poem’s title and its writer, William Ernest Henley.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, Invictus is a Latin adjective used to describe something or someone that is “unconquerable, unsubdued, or invincible.” The word combines the prefix in, meaning not, and victus, from the word vincere, meaning “to conquer or overcome.” Looking at W.E. Henley’s life, it becomes apparent that the poem Invictus arose from the poet’s own experiences.

See, William Ernest Henley (1849-1903) knew a thing or two about suffering and fighting for survival. When he was just twelve years old, the poet was diagnosed with Bone Tuberculosis, a rare form of the disease that affected the skeletal system. Abscesses would form around lesions on bones, and draining these growths meant undergoing an excruciatingly painful process that Henley had to endure for many years.

By the late 1860s, the TB had progressed to the point where his left leg had to be amputated. And the disease would’ve taken his right one too, had Henley not contested the procedure. In a bid to save his right leg, he enlisted the help of the esteemed 19th-century surgeon, Joseph Lister. The treatment plan was successful, but the road to Henley’s recovery remained long and painful. W.E. Henley was confined in a hospital from 1873-1875. During this period, he wrote numerous poems about his ordeal—many of which were published in a book aptly called In Hospital.

Invictus, written in 1875, was supposed to be a part of the poetry collection, but for some reason, the 16-line masterpiece didn’t quite make the cut. The poem was eventually published in 1888 as a part of Henley’s Book of Verses.

Structure and Tone

Note: Now, there’s no mention of the sex of the speaker, but for the purpose of this analysis, I’m going to base it on Henley and just go with he/him.

Have you ever noticed how some poems just read beautifully? There’s a simplicity and balance to their structure, a smooth, almost predictable flow of rhymes and internal rhythms that translate well in readings. For me, Invictus isn’t just one of the most motivational poems in history, it’s also one of the best-sounding ones. Case in point, here’s a link to an audio recording of Morgan Freeman reading Invictus.

Aside from its wonderful message of human integrity and resolve, a part of what makes Invictus such a gorgeous piece is how tight and well-crafted the poem is. Its structure seems simple enough. Invictus is basically a four-stanza poem composed of quatrains (four lines per stanza). Each stanza follows an ABAB rhyme scheme, or an ABAB (me, pole, be, soul), CDCD (circumstance, aloud, chance, bowed), EFEF (tears, shade, years, afraid), GHGH (gate, scroll, fate, soul) scheme if we were to be more specific. This rhyme scheme creates natural pause points for the reader.

But, for me, what really makes the poem such an aural treat is its use of iambic tetrameter, almost like a metronome, to give the words a rhythmic da-dum-da-dum-da-dum sound. Try reading the poem out loud and you’ll see what I mean.

As for the tone of the work, we see a curious mix of both gravitas and optimism in each stanza. The first line of each stanza is a telling of despair, an acknowledgment of pain and suffering. While the latter lines are usually affirmations of the persona’s inner strength, determination, and courage. This is a pattern that continues throughout the work. It’s as if the persona is telling us that despite everything that’s happening, he is ready to face each challenge with courage and resilience.

Notice also how the work is written in first person and present tense. Aside from breathing life into each line, this technique also makes it easier for the readers to put themselves into the persona’s shoes. And with themes as universal as bravery, dignity, invincibility, and rising above adversity, it’s a poem that most of mankind can identify with.

Further analysis of Invictus by William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole…

The first two lines of the poem establish the bleak situation or mood that the persona finds himself in. He speaks of night, a darkness that is so hellish (the pit) that it blankets everything in sight. Now, based on this description, we can infer that the speaker is using this darkness/night as a metaphor for feelings of helplessness, desolation, hopelessness, or even depression. But instead of dwelling or surrendering to these feelings, he opts to look at things in a different light. He goes:

I thank whatever gods may be
for my unconquerable soul.

The word thank brings to mind both choice and action. The persona is actively choosing to feel gratitude and hope despite being mired in a dire situation. But notice the curious way he expresses his gratitude. He expresses thanks to whatever gods may be—a statement that seems to indicate the possibility of a higher power or a number of higher powers, but not the certainty. In short, it’s a line that hints at the speaker’s possible agnosticism. And if we look at the quality that he’s thankful for, his unconquerable soul, the last two lines can also be interpreted as more of a declaration of the persona’s indomitability rather than a mere articulation of thanks.

In the fell clutch of circumstance,
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

This pattern of recounting the negative aspects of life followed by an assertion of the persona’s unbroken spirit continues in the second stanza. Here we see the persona speak of the cruel nature of existence—the fell clutch of circumstance and the bludgeonings of chance—as terrible events that occur outside of his control. The use of the word bludgeoning, brings to mind the idea of feeling beaten down by life. And yet, while such events may be unavoidable, what he can and does control is how he reacts to them.

He tells us, I have not winced nor cried aloud… My head is bloody, but unbowed. He may not have escaped such tragedies unscathed, but he refuses to be bogged down by these experiences. This stanza actually reminds me of something I read on W.E. Henley’s Wikipedia page. According to his brother, every time Henley had to undergo the draining of the abscesses in his joints—a very painful procedure, to be sure—Henley would try to mask the pain he was feeling. After each session, he would “Hop about the room, laughing loudly and playing with zest to pretend he was beyond the reach of pain.”

If anything, this anecdote shows us how personal the poem is to Henley. And when he speaks about a place of wrath and tears in the third stanza, one can imagine that the poet/persona is referring to both life and the hospital—a place that is often steeped with anguish, pain, and suffering.

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.

The second line in this stanza, Looms but the Horror of the shade, is also possibly a reference to facing one’s mortality. But again, these years of suffering or menace have not been enough to break the persona/poet. And just as sure as he has faced these trials with courage and defiance, he assures the reader that any challenges he will face in the future will be met with the same resoluteness. These challenges shall find him 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.

The poem then reaches its climax in the final stanza. Here, Henley borrows a concept from the New Testament of the King James Version of the Bible. The line It matters not how strait the gate appears to be a response to Matthew 7:13-14, which says:

Enter ye at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:

Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and there be few that find it.

This biblical passage tells us that to get to heaven, we need to walk the narrow path (the good path).  The next line, How charged with punishments the scroll, also appears to allude to the religious idea of our sins being weighed when we enter the afterlife. The tally on the scroll will determine where we go—heaven or hell.

And yet, what the persona in Invictus tells us is that these things don’t matter to him. He will not let such standards determine the course of his life. He will not bow to life’s hardships, nor would he be swayed by other people’s criteria. He says finally and definitively these iconic lines, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.