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Invictus – Poem full analysis

Posted by DreamSharer on February 11, 2012

Invictus, meaning “unconquerable” or “undefeated” in Latin, is a poem by William Ernest Henley. This poem is an affirmation of one’s control, will, and ability to choose and make decisions. For the short time we have on this Earth, we are able to choose our response to circumstances and stimuli. This poem has always inspired me.

This poem is about courage in the face of death, and holding on to one’s own dignity despite the indignities life places before us.

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 first stanza of the poem, Henley prays in the darkness of the night  to “whatever gods may be” a prayer of thanks for his “unconquerable soul.” First, the speaker is in a type of metaphorical darkness, perhaps the darkness of despair. Second, he does not pray for strength, but instead he gives thanks for the strength that he already has. Third, he seems somewhat flippant about who he is or is not praying to; it is almost like this is a prayer to himself at this point, but not quite to that extent.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

The seeming agnosticism of the first stanza continues on to the second one. He does not talk about God’s will or even fate; instead he speaks of “the fell clutch of circumstance” and “the bludeonings of chance,” and he asserts and guarantees that he has overcome these bravely and without complaint.

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.

The third stanza is about death and what a trifle it seems to the Henley. This “place of wrath and tears”, this life, it seems, is not full enough of pain and horror to frighten him. And death, “the Horror of the shade,” could not possibly worry him, being an end to “wrath and tears”. Notice here that he is not concerned in any way about an afterlife. Death is merely an end to suffering for the poet. Nothing of any concern seems to lie beyond for him until….

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.

The one line in this poem that seems to give most people the most trouble is the reference to a “strait gate”. “It matters not how strait the gate” is either a reference to John Bunyan’s tract The Strait Gate, or Great Difficulty of Going to Heaven (1676), or the scripture Bunyan got his title from Matthew 7:13, 14.

“Enter ye in at the strait gate; for wide is the gate,
and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction,
and many there be which go in thereat:
because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way,
which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” ~ John Bunyan

I believe that the theme of this short poem “Invictus” is the will to survive in the face of the severe tests of life. The poem talks about the feelings of Henley but applies to each one of us as individuals. This is what we are too and what we should understand. The poet William Ernest Henley expresses his acceptance of whatever judgment or doom death may bring. He accepts no master but himself. He bows to no authority. He is his own god, guide and judge. He is the Captain of his own ship and the master of his own life.

This poem is about courage in the face of death, and holding on to one’s own dignity despite the indignities that life places before us.

Henley was a lifelong atheist, and, with his missing leg and braggadocio, he was also the inspiration for the character of Long John Silver in Robert Louis Stephenson’s Treasure Island, He was a Captain indeed.

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