A summary of a classic poem
‘Invictus’ is a famous poem, even to those who haven’t heard of it. This is because, although the title ‘Invictus’ may mean little to some (other than, perhaps, as the title of a film – of which more shortly), and the author of the poem, William Ernest Henley, is not much remembered now, the words which conclude the poem – ‘I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul’ – are well-known. The poem is sufficiently famous to warrant closer attention and analysis.
William Ernest Henley, like his most famous non-famous poem, is somebody whom we both know and don’t know. Even those who don’t know his name are aware of his influence. Henley (1849-1903) was friends with Robert Louis Stevenson, and when Stevenson wrote his first novel, Treasure Island (1883), he was inspired by Henley’s distinctive appearance to create the famous fictional pirate. (Henley, who had suffered from tuberculosis from an early age, had his left leg amputated below the knee while still a teenager, was the inspiration for Stevenson’s one-legged pirate.) Henley’s daughter Margaret was the inspiration for Wendy Darling in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. During his lifetime, Henley was a prominent and influential figure on the literary scene: H. G. Wells dedicated The Time Machine to him and W. E. Henley’s followers and acolytes were punningly known as ‘the Henley Regatta’.
Anyway, here is ‘Invictus’, and a short summary and analysis of this iconic 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.
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.
‘Invictus’, Henley’s one poem which is now at all remembered, was written in 1875 when Henley was still in his mid-twenties, was originally published in 1888 without its distinctive title (the Latin for ‘unconquered’). Indeed, the title wasn’t even Henley’s idea, but when Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch added the poem to The Oxford Book of English Verse in 1900, he appended the memorable Latin title. Even today, the title remains far less well-known than that rousing penultimate line, ‘I am the master of my fate’.
One of the most curious things about the poem is that its stoic message makes no mention of Christianity. This does not mean, of course, that it is anti-religious or even non-religious, merely that Henley’s poem does not touch upon such things, aside from that casual reference to ‘whatever gods may be’, which allows for a pagan or polytheistic as well as (perhaps even over) a Christian interpretation, given the plural ‘gods’. In an age where other celebrated poems about striving and struggling – Arthur Hugh Clough’s ‘Say not the struggle nought availeth’ being a well-known example – tended to hint at the idea that God and heaven were a reward for earthly toil and hardship, Henley places his poem firmly in the here and now, for all its talk of a ‘soul’ and ‘fate’. Indeed, these things are mentioned only for the poet to assert his dominance and control over them: ‘I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul.’ That repeated assertion of the self, and of the self’s agency, is an affirmation of Henley’s autonomy.
And then consider how the lines ‘Beyond this place of wrath and tears / Looms but the Horror of the shade’ do not make room for the afterlife (‘but the Horror’), suggesting that death leads to darkness and nothing more. Yet life, too, can be a realm of blackness and darkness: ‘Out of the night that covers me, / Black as the pit from pole to pole.’ Is this black ‘night’ a reference to depression? ‘Invictus’ seems to be not simply about coping with a physical condition – the loss of a leg at a young age, owing to tuberculosis – but a mental one, too. If depression makes one feel that one has lost control over one’s life, the assertion in the final two lines of ‘Invictus’ are a declaration that the poet intends to take back self-control, or at least announce his determined attempt to do so.
The poem introduced a couple of famous phrases into the language: ‘bloody, but unbowed’, and the final two lines: ‘I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul.’ Like Kipling’s ‘If’, it became popular with readers and has remained reasonably popular because it offers a stoic approach to life’s hardships.
Henley by all accounts exuded a masculine strength and vigour (and had a large red beard and a hearty laugh – a sort of Victorian Brian Blessed, we might say). Although it often doesn’t pay to be too reductive in terms of offering a biographical analysis of poetry, ‘Invictus’ was almost certainly inspired – at least in part – by Henley’s loss of the lower half of his left leg: he would remain ‘unbowed’ and ‘unconquered’ by this physical setback. Clint Eastwood’s 2009 film about the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa is named Invictus after the poem, and for good reason: Nelson Mandela recited the poem to his fellow prisoners while he was incarcerated on Robben Island.
Image: William Ernest Henley, from The Story of the House of Cassell (1922), Wikimedia Commons.