Invictus 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.


In translation, ‘invictus’ is Latin for ‘unconquerable’ or ‘undefeated’, and from the very onset of Henley’s poem it is made very clear that despite any bleakness, mental strength outwits all. The speaker in this poem is metaphorically covered by the night and in a black pit, existing in darkness; but in spite of his perpetual darkness, he thanks the gods for his ‘unconquerable soul.’ He does not pray for strength as the presence of a metaphorical  darkness at first suggests, but gives thanks for the strength that he already possesses, thus giving the first stanza an unexpected and positive spin on bleakness. The courage the speaker has defined in the first stanza is firmly continued in the second, Henley talks of ‘the fell clutch of circumstance’ and ‘the bludgeonings of chance’ and how he – through all these harsh tests – has ‘not winced nor cried aloud’, he has metaphorical scars and a ‘bloody’ head but keeps his head held high and ‘unbowed’; he has no intention of surrendering to the jarring facets of life.

The speaker goes on to directly address his indifference towards the malice of death which he as ‘the Horror of the shade’ which he maintains that he is ‘unafraid’ of. In using emotive language which hold connotations of utter dread and despair throughout the entire poem – most notably in the third stanza in which Henley depicts ‘this place of wrath and tears’ – it is even more impressive to the reader that the speaker has been able to overcome this. It is also worth noting that perhaps ‘the Horror of the shade’ is a sweet release from ‘this place of wrath and tears’, it ultimately brings an end to mortal suffering.

My favourite part in the entire poem is the final two lines, in which the speaker declares ‘I am the master of my fate : / I am the captain of my soul.’ It seems to indicate a fundamentally important lesson (which I have only just recently learnt myself): that the only actions we are truly in control of are our own. We cannot dwell upon the hardships that have been thrust upon us, but instead should concentrate on ways in which we can better ourselves from them to acquire an unconquerable soul – an ‘invictus’ soul.

William Ernest Henley (1849-1903)

William Ernest Henley (1849-1903)