W William Ernest Henley

I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul

“I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul”, concluding lines of ‘Invictus’, contains an ironic meaning apart from the motivational aspect. Famous leaders had often quoted these lines for encouraging others to stand firm in the face of adversity.

The last two lines of William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus contain invaluable advice to those who blame God for their failures. It is not only about God, but the mindset that makes one surrender while faced with challenges. Challenges make one stronger but mentally submitting oneself to those impediments extinguishes the inner light that one carries inside the heart from infancy. Through these lines, Henley tried to say that it’s not about how difficult the path is, it’s about one’s attitude to keep moving forward without submitting oneself to fate’s recourse.

I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul

 

Context

This famous quote, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul” appears at the end of one of the best poems of the Victorian era, ‘Invictus’ by William Ernest Henley. This motivational poem talks about a person’s battle with mental and physical impediments. One has to understand the overall idea of the poem to get to the core of the last two lines. The development of poetic ideas helps one to understand the meaning of these lines that depends on the overall subject matter of the poem.

However, in the first stanza, the speaker refers to the blackness of night that encapsulates his mind. Thereafter, in the second stanza, the speaker says he has not “winced or cried aloud” as his head is “bloody, but unbowed.” In the third stanza, he refers to the “Horror of the shade” of Hell that shall find him. But, he is unafraid. In the final stanza, the speaker refers to the “strait gate” that leads one to heaven. Moreover, he says he doesn’t care “how charged with punishments the scroll” is. The reason is, he is the master of his fate and the captain of his soul. In this way, the last two lines more appropriately refer to one’s fearlessness in religion and the self-knowledge that, in reality, controls one’s life, nor the otherworldly powers.

 

Meaning

In the poem, ‘Invictus’, the speaker remarks at the end, “I am the master of my fate,/ I am the captain of my soul.” The first line of this quote means what is going to happen with the speaker, he is fully responsible for that. The reason is that he is the master of his fate. So, one’s fate is in one’s control. It depends on how one makes it work for oneself. Thereafter, in the last line, the speaker remarks that he is the captain of his soul. The captain is the person who is in command of a ship. Here, the ship is the speaker’s soul. So, in which direction the soul will be heading, depends on one’s deeds, not on predestination.

 

Rhyme Scheme

These lines don’t rhyme together. When the overall stanza is taken together, the rhyming and internal connectivity between the lines appear. The last stanza of ‘Invictus’ reads:

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.

Here, the “gate” in the first line rhymes with “fate” in the third line. Likewise, “scroll” in the second line rhymes with “soul” in the last line. This alternative rhyming scheme creates an internal connection between the rhyming lines. The idea of the first line is connected with the idea of “I am the master of my fate.” Similarly, the reference to the scroll of punishments is closely associated with the line, “I am the captain of my soul.”

 

Sound and Meter

These two lines begin similarly to create a resonance of the poet’s idea. Now, metrical analysis of the lines presents another similarity. There are a total of eight syllables in each of these lines. The stress falls on the second syllable of each foot. After dividing the syllables metrically and stressing (here the stressed syllables are emboldened) on the second syllable of each foot, it looks like:

I am/ the mas-/ ter of/ my fate,

I am/ the cap-/ tain of/ my soul.

So, these two lines as well as the overall poem is in iambic tetrameter. The rising rhythm of these lines is a reference to the speaker’s courage and optimism. Moreover, each line sounds like “daa-dum”, “daa-dum”. The shortness of lines and easy-to-pronounce syllables create an urgency inside the poem. However, the structure of the lines makes it easier to pronounce the lines and emphasize more on the stressed syllables. Moreover, readers can also see that the stress falls on the important words of these lines such as “am“, “mas-ter”, “fate“, “cap-tain”, and “soul“.

 

Figure of Speech

First of all, this kind of beginning with a similar kind of phrasing, “I am the… ” is a figure of speech known as anaphora. The poet uses to device for creating a resonance of his idea. Here, he emphasizes that he is the master of his fate and captain of his soul. For forcefully saying these statements he employs this device. Apart from that, the full stop at the end, makes the above-mentioned statement an assertion of the poet.

Thereafter, these two lines contain metaphors. In the first line, “I am the master of my fate”, the poet compares fate to a thing that can be controlled and the speaker compares himself to the master or controller of that thing. Moreover, this line contains an alliteration in the phrase, “master of my.” Here, the consonant sound “m” gets repeated for the sake of emphasis. This repetition of consonant sound is also known as consonance.

Whereas, in the second line, “I am the captain of my soul”, the speaker compares his soul to a ship and he is the captain of this ship. This metaphor of ship also contains a biblical allusion. Apart from that, the poet uses irony in these two lines. Here, the poet criticizes the concept of Christian predestination and divine control over one’s soul.

 

Explanation

Line One

I am the master of my fate,

In these famous lines of ‘Invictus’, the poet Henley proclaims his authority over the ruling of fate and his soul. This analysis of the last two lines of the poem closely studies what the poet meant here. To begin with, the first line of this quotation, “I am the master of my fate”, means the speaker is the controller of his fate. But why does the speaker say so? If one looks at the first two lines of the last stanza of this poem, there the speaker says,

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

Here, the poet alludes to a phrase from the King James Bible, which says,

Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. [Matthew 7:14]

But, here the poet doesn’t use the phrase from the Bible to praise the idea. Rather he intends to criticize the idea of predestination and God’s control over one’s life. For this reason, the speaker of the poem firmly asserts that he is the one, and only one, who can control his fate, not the divine power. It is true. One’s life or more appropriately the so-called “fate”, depends on one’s choices and determination to fulfill his goals. Fate is an abstract concept that people frame inside their minds. Hence, only a person can change or reframe his or her fate. Neither angels nor God has any control over one’s fate. Only a man can control his fate as he is the master of it.

 

Line Two

I am the captain of my soul.

Thereafter, in the second line of this quote, the speaker asserts that he is the captain of his soul. It means that the speaker is responsible for his future. His acts in this world will determine in which direction his soul will move forward. If one refers back to the first two lines of this stanza, they can find that here the poet refers to the punishments one will face in hell. After not getting the allowance to the realm of heaven, according to the biblical texts, the soul of a person has to go the hell. There the soul suffers for the deeds that it did on earth. Apart from that, God has the ultimate ruling over where one’s soul might rest in the future.

In contrast to this idea, the poet firmly says, “No!” Only a person is the rightful owner of his soul, not God. It is a human who bears the soul throughout his or her life. So, the jurisdiction over where the soul will go must be in the hands of that person. For this reason, the speaker of the poem metaphorically compares himself to the captain of his soul.

 

Historical Context

The poem to which these lines belong was written in 1875 and published in 1888. It was an era of high ideals and the attitude of not bowing down in adversity. The era is called the Victorian era, a period of possibilities. Hence this poem also reflects this Victorian spirit. However, when Henley was 16 years old, his left leg was amputated due to the complications arising from tuberculosis. In the 1870s, he faced a similar problem with his other leg. But later, in August 1873, the distinguished surgeon Joseph Kister saved his remaining leg. After recovering from his ailment, he wrote the verses that became the poem ‘Invictus’.

From the last two lines of the poem, it becomes clear that after recovering from the disease, he understood the divine power had not assisted him. The doctor did. Moreover, he was also determined and didn’t accept the perception that was going to be his reality. The choice (traveling to Edinburgh to meet the surgeon) Henley made in August 1873, changed his future. Apart from that, in 1859, Charles Darwin introduced the theory of the evolution of humankind through his famous book, “On the Origin of Species”. It changed the perception of humanity. The divine authority started to falter. During this critical phase, when divinity lost its grace and scientific inquiry gained importance, Henley wrote these memorable lines, “I am the master of my fate,/ I am the captain of my soul.”

 

Notable Uses

In history, famous figures quote these two lines of Henley’s poem. Likewise, Winston Churchill, in a speech to the House of Commons on 9 September 1941, paraphrased the lines,

We are still masters of our fate. We still are the captains of our souls.

Nelson Mandela, while he was imprisoned at Robben Island Prison, recited this poem to other prisoners to empower them by its message of self-mastery. U.S. President Barack Obama quoted the last stanza at the end of his speech at the memorial service of Nelson Mandela in South Africa on 10 December 2013. Ironically, the Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh quoted the poem as his final statement before his execution.

Several writers also quoted the poem as well as the last two lines in their works. Likewise, Oscar Wilde reminisces the last line in his ‘De Profundis’ letter. C.S. Lewis, in his “The Pilgrim’s Regress” (1933), paraphrased the last two lines,

I cannot put myself under anyone’s orders. I must be the captain of my soul and the master of my fate. But thank you for your offer.

Moreover, Gwen Harwood used the last line of the poem as the title of her 1960 poem, ‘I am the Captain of My Soul’.

The last two lines of the poem are also used in the films such as Casablanca (1942), Sunrise at Campobello (1960), The Big Short (2015), and Star Trek: Renegades (2015). The singer Lana Del Rey paraphrased the lines in her song “Lust for Life”.

 

Similar Quotes

The following quotes can inspire readers like the last two lines of ‘Invictus’.

If— by Rudyard Kipling

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim.

These lines belong to one of the well-known inspirational poems of English literature. Here, the poet urges one to dream and think, but not get trapped up in dreams and thoughts. This poem is one of the best Rudyard Kipling poems.

 

Dreams by Langston Hughes

Hold fast to dreams

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly.

Here, the poet compares life with a bird and hope with its wings. Without hope, life becomes flightless. ‘Dreams’ is one of the best-known poems by Hughes.

 

Our Deepest Fear by Marianne Williamson

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

The first two lines of this poem set the tone and mood of the poem. Here, the poet refers to a paradox of fear that lies within us.

 

Ulysses by Alfred Tennyson

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

These immortal lines belong to one of the best Alfred Tennyson poems. Readers might be thinking about why we have quoted these lines. Read the last line, again and again, until the energy and verbal force rings in the ears. Then one can understand the real meaning of these lines quoted above.

You can read about 10 of the Most Famous English-Language Poems here.

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A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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