By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘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.)