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 with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
About the Poem
Latin for “unconquered,” the poem “Invictus” is a deeply descriptive and motivational work filled with vivid imagery. William Ernest Henley wrote this poem about stoicism, courage and refusing to accept defeat while enduring a severely testing time in hospital. He had contracted tuberculosis of the bone in his youth, and the lower part of one of his legs was amputated in his twenties. At one point, it was feared he might lose his other leg. 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.” The poem is most known for its themes of willpower and strength in the face of adversity. It evokes Victorian stoicism—the “stiff upper lip” of self-discipline and fortitude in adversity—much of which is drawn from the horrible fate assigned to many amputees of the day i.e., gangrene and death.
Written in 1875, but not published until thirteen years later, ‘Invictus’ was an immediately popular poem. Its uplifting and inspirational qualities saw it frequently appear in poetry anthologies, and it was often memorized and recited in schools up until the 1960s. With four stanzas and sixteen lines, each containing eight syllables, the poem has a rather uncomplicated structure. Each stanza takes considerable note of Henley’s perseverance and fearlessness throughout his early life and over twenty months under Lister’s care. In the second stanza, Henley refers to the strength that helped him through a childhood defined by his struggles with tuberculosis when he says, “I have not winced nor cried aloud.” In the fourth stanza, Henley alludes to the fact that each individual’s destiny is under the jurisdiction of themselves, not at the mercy of the obstacles they face, nor other worldly powers.
Those who have taken time to analyze “Invictus” have also taken notice of religious themes, or the lack thereof, that exists in this piece. There is agreement that much of the dark descriptions in the opening lines refer to Hell. Later, the fourth stanza of the poem alludes to a phrase from the King James Bible, which says in Matthew 7:14, “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” Notice how the first verse adopts a humanist position. Reference to a higher power amid suffering is vague—whatever gods may be—while the focus is on his ‘unconquerable soul.’ The famous line ‘My head is bloody, but unbowed’ suggests a noble bravery in the face of adversity, while the even more frequently quoted final two lines affirm the power of individuals to shape their own destiny, to accept responsibility and to choose how they will go forward in life. Despite Henley’s evocative telling of perseverance and determination, worry was on his mind; in a letter to a close companion, Henley later confided, “I am afeard my marching days are over” when asked about the condition of his leg.
I chose this poem because I was thinking of the freshmen cadets (technically they are not yet cadets as that comes later in the semester after they have “earned” the honor of being a cadet) at the military college where I work. You can hear them training in the early morning hours just after dawn. The orders being yelled, the loud responses, and such that goes along with their first week here. It is a brutal week meant to introduce them to life as a cadet and the military lifestyle. It is also done to test their fortitude. In years past, it was even more brutal than it is today. All too often we see the new cadets on crutches or hobbling along from some overexerted injury. Some of the new cadets are homesick and a little lost. Some knew what to expect, while others didn’t think it would be so difficult. The perseverance is supposed to be part of the process. One of the most amazing aspects of the cadet experience, is they often come in as scrawny teenagers (some are a bit more fit, but not all), and by the end of the semester or sometimes it takes both semesters, they are at their peak fitness of their lives. The transformation is truly awe-inspiring.
On a side note, I am enjoying the students being back and seeing them around campus and the town. Last year, we barely saw them. In the Fall, students were quarantined to campus, and we were still mostly working from home. Then in the Spring, they were largely quarantined to their dorms, apart from some training, but even that was severely limited. Now, life has come back to our little town and our campus. Being a military college, you don’t always see the typical shirtless college guys throwing a Frisbee or tossing a football on the quad. Mostly the cadets are in their uniforms and the civilian students are fewer in number (and often not as fit). For one of the first times the other day, I saw a group out running, many of them shirtless. It was a sight to behold, but as the semester is beginning, they will be back in their uniforms full-time and that won’t be a sight we will often see.
About the Poet
William Ernest Henley (1849 – 1903) was an English editor, poet, and playwright. Diagnosed as a child with tuberculosis of the bone, the disease plagued him throughout his life and caused the amputation of a leg when he was not yet twenty. A big, burly man with a gregarious disposition and a keen eye for literary talent, William was well liked and much admired for his own body of work. One of his closest friends was Robert Louis Stevenson, who used William as the inspiration for his Treasure Island character, Long John Silver. This poem, in turn, has inspired thousands around the world.