Here is an analysis of W.E. Henley’s famous and inspiration poem, Invictus. It is said that William Ernest Henley wrote the poem in 1875 for a Scottish flour merchant named Robert Thomas Hamilton Bruce. It was first published in 1888—without a title—in Henley’s first volume of poetry. The title of the poem, Invictus, which is Latin for “unconquered,” was given by the editor of The Oxford Book of English Verse. The film is a favorite in popular culture, making appearances in movies such as Casablanca and the Nelson Mandela movie of the same name. Politicians and authors also love to quote the inspirational last two lines of the poem: “I am the master of my fate:/I am the captain of my soul.”
This is a Victorian poem that is made up of four stanzas and sixteen lines, with four lines in each stanza. It has a set rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efef ghgh. The poem also has a set rhythm: each line contains eight syllables. In the poem, the speaker is faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges. Throughout it all, however, he perseveres and is successful in his endeavors. He faces each challenge with courage and is not afraid, and he is able to surmount any hardship.
Breakdown Analysis of Invictus
Out of the night that covers me,Black as the pit from pole to pole,I thank whatever gods may beFor my unconquerable soul.
In the first stanza, the speaker immediately sets the stage for his reader. He says, “Out of the night that covers me,/Black as the Pit from pole to pole.” Henley’s use of imagery is strong from the very beginning. It is quite easy for the reader to picture a night that is completely dark. In these two lines, the poet also creates a metaphor, as the night to which the speaker refers can actually represent any quandary in which the speaker finds himself. It is important here to think about the connotations of the word “night.” Since it is dark and one cannot see, it is easy for horrible things to happen, particularly when the night is “black as the Pit.” It is also curious that Henley chose to capitalize “Pit,” using a simile to compare the darkness of the night to this hole. One reason Henley may have chosen to capitalize Pit is to make a reference to Hell, which is considered to be the bleakest and blackest of places. By using the phrase “from pole to pole,” the poet conjures up an image of the world, and it gives an almost nautical feel to the poem. It can be inferred, particularly when one knows the occupation of the man to whom the poem was dedicated, that our fearless speaker is perhaps a captain of a ship, particularly when he gives himself that title at the end of the poem. In the next two lines of the first stanza, Henley writes, “I thank whatever gods may be/For my unconquerable soul.” While the speaker does not know which Higher Beings truly exist, he takes the time to thank them for giving him a soul that cannot be conquered. Perhaps Henley’s use of the word unconquerable here is what inspired the editor of The Oxford Book of English Verse to title the poem Invictus.
In the fell clutch of circumstanceI have not winced nor cried aloud.Under the bludgeonings of chanceMy head is bloody, but unbowed.
The second stanza is a continuation of the first. Henley writes, “In the fell clutch of circumstance/I have not winced nor cried aloud.” In other words, the speaker has not allowed himself to become a victim of the events that have transpired in his life. In these lines, Henley personifies circumstance, giving it human-like qualities to show just how tightly the events of one’s life can take hold. Throughout all that he has been dealt, the speaker has not even cringed or cried about what has happened. He does admit, however, in the next two lines that he has not emerged unscathed. Henley writes, “Under the bludgeonings of chance/My head is bloody, but unbowed.” While he may have physical scars, he has never bowed his head in defeat; instead, he has kept it held high. Henley also employs alliteration in this stanza, repeating the “b” sound, which creates a harsh rhythm to the poem.
Beyond this place of wrath and tearsLooms but the Horror of the shade,And yet the menace of the yearsFinds and shall find me unafraid.
The third stanza takes a darker turn, for the speaker refers to an afterlife that is filled with horror. Henley writes, “Beyond this place of wrath and tears/Looms but the Horror of the shade.” The speakers seems to be saying here that he knows that what he has endured in this life is nothing compared to what lies ahead in the “shade,” which is a reference to death. He again tells his reader that he does not fear anything. Lines eleven and twelve read, “And yet the menace of the years/Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.” The speaker will remain fearless, even in the face of death and what comes after.
The fourth stanza, while still fairly dark, is somewhat more uplifting, particularly in the last two lines of the poem. Henley writes,
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 nautical imagery once again returns in this stanza, with the speaker referring to himself as a captain, but also commenting that it does not matter how narrow the path is to the gates of the afterlife, he will make it with no problems. And when he is being judged, no matter how many punishments are listed, he will have decided his fate, and he will have steered his own course. These last two lines are considered to be some of the most famous lines in all of literature, and they are a continued source of inspiration for people of all walks of life.
Historical Background to Invictus
Many scholars believe Henley wrote this poem about himself, since he wrote it while lying in a hospital bed. Henley was very sick as a young boy, which later resulted in him contracting an infection that spread to his leg. The leg was amputated, and doctors thought they would have to do the same to the other leg, as well, but Henley persuaded another doctor to try a new treatment that was able to prevent amputation. Many Victorian writers often incorporated nature into their poetry, and Henley continued this trend, which is quite evident in the lines of Invictus.