(Note: Do leave a comment if there is something you haven’t quite understood)
Invictus, meaning “unconquerable” or “undefeated” in Latin, is a poem by William Ernest Henley. The poem was written while Henley was in the hospital being treated for tuberculosis of the bone, also known as Pott’s disease. He had had the disease since he was very young, and his foot had been amputated shortly before he wrote the poem. 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.
I will take you through the poem, and explain it stanzas by stanza to give you a clear idea of what the poem is trying to tell you. The poem itself is very simple in form and devices, and as such comes as a relief in a time where flowery and ambiguous writing ran wild. To start off a little bit about the Background of the Poem.
At the age of 12, Henley contracted tuberculosis of the bone. A few years later, the disease progressed to his foot, and physicians announced that the only way to save his life was to amputate directly below the knee. It was amputated when he was 17. Despite his disability, he survived with one foot intact and led an active life until his death at the age of 53.
This poem was written by Henley shortly after his leg was amputated and although he wrote many poems while in hospital, this one is largely his claim to fame.
Henley dedicated the poem to Robert Thomas Hamilton Bruce (1846-1899), a Scottish flour merchant. After Hamilton Bruce’s death, published collections of Henley’s poems often included either of these dedication lines preceding the poem: “I.M.R.T. Hamilton Bruce” or “In Memoriam R.T.H.B.” (“In Memory of Robert Thomas Hamilton Bruce”). The surname Hamilton Bruce is sometimes spelled with a hyphen (Hamilton-Bruce).
The strong, resilient enunciation of the poem’s title carries a remarkable effect from the outset, emphasizing Henley’s intention to show might in the face of adversity. The Latin, powerful-sounding Invictus‘s definition is no less noticeable: the “unconquerable.“
The theme of the poem is the will to survive in the face of a severe test. Henley himself faced such a test. After contracting tuberculosis of the bone in his youth, he suffered a tubercular infection when he was in his early twenties that resulted in amputation of a leg below the knee. When physicians informed him that he must undergo a similar operation on the other leg, he enlisted the services of Dr. Joseph Lister (1827-1912), the developer of antiseptic medicine. He saved the leg. During Henley’s twenty-month ordeal between 1873 and 1875 at the Royal Edinburgh Infirmary in Scotland, he wrote “Invictus” and other poems. Years later, his friend Robert Louis Stevenson based the character Long John Silver (a peg-legged pirate in the Stevenson novel Treasure Island) on Henley.
In the first stanza, Henley refers to the “night that covers me, black as the pit from pole to pole” (lines 1 and 2); this night is generally a metaphor for the hardships and problems of a worldly existence, but the line could clearly be understood at the discretion of the reader by assigning the night any of negative roles (any particular hardship that may encompass a person’s entire life, such as a handicap like Henley’s; persistent, taxing responsibilities; or sustained emotional injury). The next line, “the pit from pole to pole” is a basic way of likening the darkness (or the difficulty) of the night to the lightless, deep desolation of the center of the earth, and its meaning does not require any change as understanding of the poem changes. Lines 3 and 4, “I thank whatever gods may be/for my unconquerable soul,” parallel the title and introduce the poem’s primary focus. By suggesting that the soul is the creation of a higher power, the line reinforces the theme of the unconquerable by associating the soul with the interminable. Some critics have argued that line 3 is hard proof of the author’s agnosticism, but other interpretations have left the statement as a choice in poetic device rather than a religious preference, even hailing the poem as one not quite contradictory (as agnostic analyses contend) to conventional Christianity. Regardless of this, Henley definitely intended to carry the meaning of his poetry to the spiritual level, which is further explored in the third stanza.
The second stanza bears the image of a hapless victim whose predators are the violent “circumstance” and “chance”; both abstract concepts are solidified by lines 6-9. Line 6, “In the fell clutch of circumstance,” followed by line 7, “I have not winced nor cried aloud” immediately instills an image of an animal captured by the “fell clutch” of a predatory bird. The circumstance, in Henley’s case, was likely a reference to his unfortunate condition but, much like the many parts of the poem, is manipulable to personal perspective. Though cursed with a great burden, he did not “wince nor cry aloud,” that is, complain vociferously about his pain, as an animal carried away would squeal to its demise. Then Chance, in lines 8-9, appears with a baseball bat to do his damage: “Under the bludgeoning of chance/my head is bloody, but unbowed.” Henley’s choice of imagery best describes any case of one downtrodden by misfortune who has not conceded due to events that transpire beyond his control, much as a hardy prisoner beaten by his captors would not allow his head to bow in defeat.
Both warning and consoling, the third stanza brings in something past that introduced in the second, showing a more spiritual side of the poem: “Beyond this place of wrath and tears/looms the Horror of the shade” (lines 11 and 12). The “place of wrath and tears” of which Henley writes is the world we live in, the place where we are the prey of circumstance and the prisoners of chance. Beyond it, however, Henley suggests that there is more by expressing his belief in an afterlife, but he does not simply relegate the “Beyond” to simple optimism. Line 12’s “Horror of the shade” is the unknown that is across the threshold of life and death that may hold more hardships for the soul yet, and it is undoubtedly a concept explored by many poets. “The menace of the years” (Line 13), of course, is the expiration of our worldly time, the end of which would mark the beginning of the journey to the shade beyond. To this, Henley holds defiantly that this imminent end “finds, and shall find him unafraid.” This disregard for fear is a declaration of acceptance of all that will come at the expiration of the flesh.
Possibly the most famous and memorable of all, the fourth stanza is the poem’s final affirmation of spiritual fortitude. Lines 16 and 17 are strongly associated with Christian ideas and images. “It matters not how strait the gate” (line 16) contains a direct biblical allusion: “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matthew 7:13-14). Line 16 is not a contradiction of the straight and narrow path, but rather an acceptance of its challenge, similar to that in the third stanza. “Scroll,” in line 17, again alludes to heavenly imagery; it does not matter what punishments one may bear from life and the afterlife as long as one is confidently in control. The bold, fearless end to the poem is an affirmation that, as the decision-makers in our lifetimes, we are the sole authorities over ourselves, and a powerful line that seems to have a wide variety of applications for any situation. Left in context and even if taken slightly out of context of the poem, its intense implications of power (“master” and “captain”) in combination with its subjects (the fate and the soul, things that are normally implied to be beyond our reach) give the final stanza an intrinsic quality found in all things frequently quoted as words of strength, such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Coincidentally enough, FDR was known to quote the concluding couplet of Invictus himself when asked how he dealt with his struggle with polio.
the best thing about this poem is that it can be interpreted so differently by so many people. from the perspective of a dying man, he can seek the courage to face whatever may come after the flesh expires. From the perspective of a young man, far from his time it can be about getting through every day. The fact that the poem relates to no specific tones is quite clear, and although we are aware of the context, it can really inspire anyone. It’s simple form and tone means it is easy to understand as well.
Besides all this it deals with the idea that you and only you are responsible for your destiny. This lesson reminded me of when Sylvester Stallone as Rocky gives that inspirational speech to his son. Watch and see how closely it relates to the poem’s lesson:
UPDATE: Extended interview with the case study Malala Yousufzai on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart http://on.cc.com/1fZFQ3B
Think about some of the stuff I have written. Mull over the questions i have posed. How does the poem relate to you? How do you think a recovering patient can gather strength from this poem? and what about a dying one? Think about it!
Buckey, Jerome Hamilton. William Ernest Henley: A Study in the “Counter-Decadence”
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Connel, John. W.E. Henley. London: Constable Publishers, 1949.
Flora, Joseph M. William Ernest Henley. New York, NY: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1970.
Haspel, Aaron. “How to Read a Poem IV: Public and Private reading.”
God of the Machine. 14 Feb. 2004. Online. Available: http://www.godofthemachine.com/archives/00000309.html
5 Feb. 2003
Ross, John D. Henley and Burns. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1970.