Are you experiencing pain, suffering, or going through a dark time? If so, this poem is for you. A rally cry for those facing adversity, “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley, reminds the reader that they have the power to be resilient. The word “Invictus” means unconquerable or undefeated in Latin, and that’s precisely what this poem is all about. The author went through a great deal of pain and suffering himself. At a young age, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the bone. His leg was amputated just before writing this poem, and we can only imagine the pain of an amputation performed in 1875. The theme of resiliency found in this poem is one that still inspires today.
Summary of “Invictus”, William Ernest Henley
This poem is inspirational and often considered a rally cry for anyone facing adversity or going through a dark time in their life. Henley acknowledges the difficulties and challenges in life, and even when we know death is inevitable, we must be resilient; we must carry on with our head held high. Throughout this Victorian poem, there is reference to hardships and perseverance. Henley himself had faced a great deal of suffering and pain in his life. Although this poem has a great deal of meaning for Henley, it is a powerful message for anyone.
Analysis of “Invictus”, William Ernest Henley
“Invictus” has four rhyming quatrain stanzas, emphasizing order and repetition. For the most part, it follows iambic tetrameter with a few strategic variations. “Invictus” follows an ABAB rhyme scheme consistently as well as some internal rhyme as seen in “straight the gate”. Henley eloquently uses several literary devices throughout “Invictus.” As a personal rally cry, the use of enjambment works well. It pushes the reader to keep going, just as the author keeps going despite life’s adversities. For example, in lines 8 and 9, “Under the bludgeonings of chance / My head is bloody, but unbowed.” We can also see other literary devices, including simile, metaphor, alliteration, anaphora, and personification throughout the poem.
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.
Henley begins the poem by coming out of a metaphorical night that weighs on him like a heavy darkness. The metaphor compares suffering to night and then states that it “covers” him. There is strong imagery here, with everything being black. Interestingly, this first line is a trochee where the rest of the poem uses iambic tetrameter. This helps portray a sense of authority and declaration. He describes this darkness extending “pole to pole,” meaning it encompasses the world. The world becomes black. This may refer to him escaping death, possibly an experience he had in the hospital where the poem was written. Henley capitalized the word “Pit,” which could be a reference to hell. In the last two lines, he states that he is resilient despite this darkness and is grateful for this resilience he has.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
The author has faced his share of life’s challenges, and yet he never let the world see him struggle, he never showed his discomfort, and he never complained. When he refers to “clutch of circumstance,” he refers to those things we cannot control, the things that happen to us in life. Henley described these challenges as “bludgeonings of chance,” as though he was physically beaten by bad luck. And yet, although he was beaten and his head was “bloody,” he kept his head up. He did not show defeat. Here he also uses alliteration, repeating the “b” sound.
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 author looks beyond his current feelings of anger and sadness only see the “Horror of the shade,” which refers to death. He looks to the future, and the inevitability of death hangs over him. These lines seem very dark and pessimistic; however, in the next two lines, Henley says that despite this, he is not frightened. Even though life is difficult and you will eventually die, you must be resilient and carry on.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am captain of my soul.
Here we see biblical references with “strait the gate” and “punishments the scroll.” There is a bible passage that describes a narrow gate as representing extreme difficulty. The “punishments the scroll” refers to horrible life events in the bible. So, Henley says that no matter how difficult life is, no matter how many tragic events occur, he will not be defeated as he controls his life, resiliency, and soul. The poem may also tell the reader that whether or not you believe in God, heaven, or hell, you are in control of your own fate; you are the “captain” of your soul.
Themes in “Invictus”, William Ernest Henley
The overarching theme in “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley is the theme of resiliency. The poem has a repetitive structure; to describe life’s adversity, followed by references to inner strength and being resilient to this adversity. For example, in the second stanza, Henley uses a physical beating (“bludgeonings”) as a metaphor for life’s challenges, and although he is “bloody” he keeps his head up and faces these challenges head-on. Henley has power over his life. In the last two lines, he refers to himself as “master” and “captain”. His use of the word “captain” here is suited for the poem’s title. The word “Invictus” has a military significance, being unconquerable. Written primarily in the present tense, Henley speaks of past, current, and future adversities and how he has faced, is facing, and will continue to face life’s adversities with his head held high and will remain resilient. This is furthered with the use of a final anaphora in the fourth stanza. His use of “I am” referring to resiliency as being a part of his identity.
Background of “Invictus”, William Ernest Henley
William Ernest Henley was born in 1849 in Gloucester, England, and considered one of the great writers of the 1890s. At the age of 12, he was diagnosed with tubercular arthritis, which caused a significant amount of pain and suffering. “Invictus” is believed to be about Henley’s own life as it was written while he was in the hospital. Henley was confined to the hospital for two years, from 1873-1875. While he was in the hospital he was undergoing treatment and had to have part of his left leg amputated. “Invictus” was written in 1875 but was not included in his published collection, aptly called “In Hospital”. Instead, “Invictus’” was published as a part of his “Book of Verses” that was released in 1888.
At this time, many writers were contemplating God’s existence, and we can see evidence of that in this poem. There is a religious reference in the first and fourth stanza. The poem has played a role in popular culture and was featured in the movie Casablanca.
The last lines of the poem really drive home the message, “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul.” These infamous lines have been repeated in movies and books. They are a mantra of sorts. In 1941, Winston Churchill spoke on the threat of World War II and rephrased the lines in his speech, “We are still masters of our fate. We are still captains of our soul”. In “Invictus,” Henley speaks of his own resiliency and the adversity he has faced. Although written over a century ago, this encouraging message of being “unconquerable” no matter what comes at you in life is just as important today. This poem was Nelson Mandel’s favorite poem, and if you really want to hear a great reading of it, you need to hear Morgan Freeman’s. Freeman played Mandela in the movie entitled “Invictus”.
If you enjoyed “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley and want to check out another legendary poem, click here to read “Eulalie” by Edgar Allen Poe.