by William Ernest Henley
Invictus was written in 1875 and dedicated to Robert Thomas Hamilton Bruce, a flour merchant from Scotland. It was subsequently published in 1888 without a title in Henley’s first published volume of poetry, Book of Verses.
The poem’s title was said to have been provided by the editor of The Oxford Book of English Verse.
This sixteen line poem is divided into four stanzas of four lines each. The rhyme scheme is scheme is abab cdcd efef ghgh. Each of the sixteen lines in the poem contain eight syllables. The lines are written primarily in iambic tetrameter, however, there are a couple of lines where this is varied. In both lines 1 and 2, the emphasis falls on “one” and “black” rather than the second syllable.
The tone of the poem is defiant and triumphant. The Speaker describes difficult circumstances and in the midst of those description, also describes himself as more than a match.
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.
Right away, the first stanza sets the mood. We are presented with a dark night, black as the pit, in opposition to the Speaker, which we are told “covers me.” The tone gets bleaker in the third line as the Speaker is presented as a solitary force against this black night. We see that he presents himself in a solitary fashion because he presents circumstances where he is not certain that any gods exist at all. If the Speaker is uncertain about the existence of the gods, then it seems quite unlikely they might intervene on his own behalf. Nevertheless, just in case there are any gods, he thanks them for his own ability to fight alone.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Here in the second stanza, the Speaker presents us with his dilemma though not with specificity. He describes himself, in line five as “In the fell clutch of circumstance.” Fell, in this usage, means dire or cruel. Clutch indicates that the circumstance has hold of him such that he cannot change them. In line six, despite line five, the Speaker tells us that he is enduring this without outwardly indicating his plight to others. To make the matter clear, he tells us in line 7 that he is enduring “the bludgeonings of change.” The imagery in line 8, then, shows us a Speaker who is injured (metaphorically one hopes) by circumstance but unwilling to yield outwardly to pain or injury.
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 poem continues to take a bleaker tone in this stanza. In line 9, the Speaker describes his own life as “this place of wrath and tears” but contextualizes against the specter of death itself – which he describes as “the Horror of the shade.” Life is terrible. Death is a horror.
“And yet” despite a life and and awaiting death that the Speaker has no good words for which to describe, the Speaker continues the theme of his own endurance in the face of adversity. He says that he is and will ever be “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 last stanza continues the dark mood of the rest of the poem. The Speaker’s defiance seems directed at God directly. This is a callback to the first stanza where the Speaker expresses his uncertainty that any gods even exist. Line 13 is an allusion to Matthew Chapter 7:13-14.
13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
Rather than bend to circumstances, or to God, or God’s punishments in the afterlife, the Speaker tells us that only his own self-direction matters. Line 13 directly tells us “it matters not” regarding the gate. The divine outcome is unimportant. The Speaker then gives himself the holy honorific “I am” in each of the last two lines. In both, he describes himself as a master and as a captain. It cannot be missed, though, that the last two lines are contradicted by the rest of the poem. He tells us in line five that he is in the “fell clutch of circumstance” – hardly a master of fate. He also tells us that he is “captain of my soul” but also tells us that God will be authoring his eternal punishments. Nevertheless, contradictions notwithstanding, the final two lines of the poem are two of the most famous in all of English literature and they serve as a source of inspiration for millions to persevere while facing hard circumstances.
When Henley was 16 years old, his left leg required amputation due to complications arising from tuberculosis. In the early 1870s, after seeking treatment for problems with his other leg at Margate, he was told that it would require a similar procedure.
He instead chose to travel to Edinburgh in August 1873 to enlist the services of the distinguished English surgeon Joseph Lister, who was able to save Henley’s remaining leg after multiple surgical interventions on the foot. While recovering in the infirmary, he was moved to write the verses that became the poem “Invictus”. A memorable evocation of Victorian stoicism—the “stiff upper lip” of self-discipline and fortitude in adversity, which popular culture rendered into a British character trait—”Invictus” remains a cultural touchstone.
- This poem has a strong presence in popular culture, even today. It was a well-known influence on Nelson Mandela, who while he was incarcerated at the Robben Island prison, is said to have recited this poem to other prisoners.
- In addition, the poem is included in films such as Casablanca, Sunrise at Campobello, and Star Trek: Renegades.
- Darkly, the poem was also chosen by Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, as his last statement before his execution (reminding us that even the evil can be “inspired.”)