This article will provide a full analysis and summary of this short, rhyming Victorian poem that Henley wrote whilst in hospital. Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, and Winston Churchill have all used “Invictus Poem for inspiration and guidance.
Henley’s left leg had to be amputated when he was 16 years old due to tuberculosis complications. After seeking treatment for problems with his other leg in the early 1870s at Margate, he was told that a similar procedure would be required.
Instead, in August 1873, he traveled to Edinburgh to seek the services of the renowned English surgeon Joseph Lister, who was able to save Henley’s remaining leg after multiple surgical interventions on the foot. While recuperating in the hospital, he was inspired to pen the verses that became the poem “Invictus.”
“Invictus” is a memorable evocation of Victorian stoicism, the “stiff upper lip” of self-discipline and fortitude in adversity, which popular culture rendered into a British character trait.
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.
Invictus Poem Meaning
‘Invictus’ is a poem about the human spirit and its ability to triumph over adversity. It is a rallying cry for those who find themselves in difficult situations and must dig deep to fight for their lives. The poet certainly knew adversity and needed all of his strength to fight disease.
He was born in Gloucester, England, in 1849, and was diagnosed with tubercular arthritis when he was 12 years old, causing him years of pain and discomfort.
W.E. Henley wrote ‘Invictus’ while in hospital for tuberculosis of the bones, specifically those in his left leg, which had to be amputated from the knee down. At the time, he was still a young man.
He saved his right leg by refusing surgery and seeking alternative treatment from a Scottish doctor named James Lister.
During his time in Edinburgh, Henley met author Robert Louis Stevenson. They became friends and corresponded frequently. Stevenson later admitted that he based his Treasure Island character Long John Silver on Henley, who had a wooden leg, a strong rasping voice, and a commanding personality.
‘Invictus’ is full of passion and defiance, and it’s easy to see why so many people use the powerful lines to inspire courage and shine light into the darkest corners when all else fails.
Written in 1875 and published in 1888, it retains its original power and conviction, with the simple rhyme scheme tightening and memorable lines.
Henley’s personal experience on the operating table and in a hospital bed, facing death, undoubtedly aided him in writing one of the most popular poems in English.
Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis on ‘Invictus’
The imagery is powerful. It’s late at night, and everything is black. The night becomes a symbol of despair, a depressive medium in which the soul is lost. The future cannot be predicted.
This is similar to the idea of St John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic who wrote in the 16th century of a “dark night of the soul,” in which the human spirit has lost its normal confident, self-assured status.
Although the poem does not explicitly mention Christianity, it is clear that this opening line is religious in nature. The speaker has just emerged from a period of total darkness, a hell.
The second line reinforces the first, with the black pit implying a deep depression, spiritual darkness covering the entire world, the world being the speaker’s.
Lines three and four acknowledge that assistance was provided somewhere, somehow, possibly by a deity or deities, rather than by any named god or specific creator. The speaker implies that their unconquerable soul is a divine gift. It isn’t exactly prayer, but it is grateful thanks.
This second quatrain begins with an intriguing phrase fell clutch, which translates as cruel grasp, with the speaker emphasizing that, despite being tightly held in an awful situation, they did not once give in or show signs of weakness.
Take note of how the speaker is initially subjected to the negative but then responds positively, a recurring theme throughout the poem.
The third and fourth lines take a similar route. There is a lot of assonance—repeated vowels:
Under the bludgeonings of chance/My head is bloody but unbowed.
The speaker implies that, despite being battered and wounded, there is no subservient or self-pitying bow of the head. The head remains held high.
The speaker imagines the future, taking into account all of the rage and pain associated with life on Earth, particularly in places like hospitals. A menacing thought is that the ‘Horror of the Shade’ could be some hellish place of darkness where depression resides.
Again, the reader is warned that there will be no capitulation or surrender. In fact, the speaker has remained fearless throughout the ordeal, which has lasted years and will continue to do so.
The message is emphasized the speaker has a clear intention to survive despite all odds.
The poem’s climax contains an allusion to the Christian Bible’s New Testament Matthew (7:13/14) where Jesus says, “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way that leads to life, and few there be that find it.”
What does the speaker mean when the words It doesn’t matter how are placed in front of straight the gate?
This is the entrance to the heavenly life. The second line, on the other hand, alludes to the depths of hell, with the punishments being the sins written down over a lifetime.
The speaker is stating that, whether a person believes in heaven or hell, the simple fact is that the individual is in control of their own fate. Henley suffered from pain and distress for many years, and the poem is inspired by the terrible circumstances he found himself in as a boy and young man.
More importantly, the message of the poem is universal in its appeal. It emphasizes that no matter who you are, believer or not, you can overcome adversity by being brave and never losing faith in your own soul’s strength.
It’s no surprise that many famous and unknown people have used the poem’s inspiration to help them face personal trials and tribulations over the years.
Metre and Rhyme
‘Invictus’ is a four-stanza rhyming poem written in iambic tetrameter, which means that each line has four beats or stresses. Trochees (and spondees) appear on occasion to sharpen up the steady rhythm.
In the first stanza, for example, the opening foot is a trochee in both the first and second lines. Lines three and four are written entirely in iambic tetrameter:
Out of / the night / that cov / ers me,
Black as / the pit / from pole / to pole,
I thank / whatev / er gods / may be
For my / unconq / uera / ble soul.
The end rhymes are all full, so the rhyme scheme is abab cdcd efef ghgh. This helps keep the whole poem together.
The first three stanzas use enjambment, where one line continues meaning into the next without punctuation.
Each quatrain addresses the speaker’s personal reaction to adversity. The basic concept is that no matter what life throws at you, you should not let it bring you down. The odds are stacked against you, but you know what? The human spirit is enormously strong and can withstand extreme stress and pain.
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