‘I am the master of my fate’: A Short Analysis of William Ernest Henley’s ‘Invictus’

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.)

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Five Fascinating Facts about William Ernest Henley

The life of Victorian writer W. E. Henley, told through five quick interesting facts

1. William Ernest Henley was the inspiration for one of the most recognisable characters in Victorian fiction. Henley (1849-1903) was friends with Robert Louis Stevenson, and when Stevenson wrote his first novelTreasure 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. Stevenson wrote to Henley that it ‘was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver … the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you.’ Henley, who 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), thus became immortalised as the one-legged Silver.

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