Invictus Explanation

10. WILLIAM ERNEST HENLEY: Invictus
(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.

Background:
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.

Dedication:
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).

Title:
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.

Theme:
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.

Notes:
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:
http://bit.ly/1cfurKE

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!

Citations:

Buckey, Jerome Hamilton. William Ernest Henley: A Study in the “Counter-Decadence”

of the ‘nineties. New York, NY: Octagon Books, 1971.

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.


40 thoughts on “Invictus Explanation

  1. I see a profession in stanza 2. A bird of prey.. As you propose is suggested here, hunts for survival whereas when some bludgeon someone, there is intent to harm.

    • Why do you say Henley’s leg was amputated when he was 17 then say in another paragraph that his leg was amputated when he was in his early twenties! As you don’t say that both legs were ultimately amputated which is correct please?

  2. Is there a universal message of self-determination in this poem that can be applied to the adult challenges all people face? How does Henley deliver a message like this?

    • Hello, I was honoured to attend the Invictus Games in Toronto. I totally get this wonderful poem.

      Kindest Regards,
      Denis Godi
      Ottawa Canada

  3. Invictus: The dark, evil world that so easily sucks us in and leads us to believe it has t he answers to relief.
    BUT there is an answer and that is simply to fall to our knees and cry out to to Jesus Christ to forgive us of our sins and to humbly as Him to take us take us the rest of the way. “Jesus said, “I am THE TRUTH, THE LIFE and no one comes to the FATHER, except through me.” Either Jesus is what He says He is or He’s a liar. You choice of what to believe. HE is so good! I was living in that black hole of despair as was William Earnest Henley, but GOD picked me up and changed my life completely! Gave me many reasons to live and is walking with me to this day 25 yrs later. HE will walk with me until the day HE takes me home. Thank you for listening. God is good!

  4. the language used is very complex, with many complicated words and sentences, I couldn’t understand the analysis. the poem was hard to understand, but know the analysis is even harder to understand. very disappointing! not at all helpful! wasted all my time reading this! very very bad!!!!!

  5. My school is doing our verse of the month and it is Invictus and we are trying to understand the poem to do a skit on it for Above and Beyond our monthly skit competition and we need to understand why he wrote the poem we are only in 7th grade and i read this to my class to tell them about him and we didn’t quite understand and were wondering more about the poem. Please Help

    • Hi Bella! Thanks for reaching out! I’d love to help 🙂

      I think in the simplest terms we can start when the poet, Mr. Henley first suffered from tuberculosis of the foot, which is a rare disease and only somewhat well studied even today. Because of this disease, he had to get his leg amputated, and very soon after his first leg was amputated he was told by doctors that his second leg would have to receive a similar amputation. Instead of merely accepting the doctors’ orders he refused to give up so easily and instead asked for the help of the surgeon Joseph Lister (who is actually whom Listerine is named after!) and Lister managed to save the leg from amputation after a series of painful surgeries. To go through so many treatments and to have to face the troubles of such a rare and badly-understood disease inspired Henley to write this poem. Does that make sense? Do let me know!

  6. From what I’ve read, this poem was originally written and published in 1888 without a title. It was not until the editor, Author Quiller-Couch, included it in the Oxford Book of English Verse and he was the one who gave it the title Invictus. Little tidbit of info there.

  7. Bella,I think he wrote the poem for the same reason girls write mean boys ugly letters…That btw they never deliver.
    But just expressing their selves made their situation tolerable.
    What intrigues me is,the highly educated use of language. To the point that more than a few educated people felt the need to look up various things in his poem.I will have to do my home work on this. My guess would be.The reason he wrote it as so is, because he didnt want to be taken as whining or feeling sorry for himself.
    ..Anywho,Id love to see what Bellas’ class came up with.Goodday good peoples!!

  8. Though I’ve come across this Poem a long time ago as a student, never knew the story behind or the circumstances that lead to it.

    I consider this one of the best motivating poems out there. It touches vast spectrum of people who has experienced all sorts of difficult phases in their life and finally to overcome it.

    Thank You and Thank you William !!!

  9. I love this poem because it screams defiance.
    The author may have been conventionally God fearing but he seems to me to be saying: “Well….thanks a lot God, but you left me with more than my fair share of burdens to carry and it looks like I’ll have to struggle on alone.
    I’ll not be sniveling about my lot but instead turn my face to the wind and weather it out.
    My dignity is more important than my pain an so shall it ever be”!
    The poem is neither agnostic nor atheistic, but it does seem to place a limit on what you can, or indeed should, expect from the Almighty and therefore might be considered, by some, to be irreligious?

  10. I remember reading this poem about 50 years ago in our seventh grade reading book.
    I also had a somewhat vague recollection about being an
    “architect of my own destiny” which inspired me to study architecture, – mainly because I didnt Know What It was!
    – and have now realized that there is no mention of it at all in the poem. English is not my native language and I do not reside in the USA. After retiring, I set out to search Invictus that so lastly impacted me in my youth.
    I just…. found it! ( after all these years) and greatly ,truly appreciate your clear explanation.
    A defiant , perseverent , unwavering, self-determination, proud and ….very human poem. THANK YOU!

  11. Patrick, I like your interpretation, especially the part you said “My dignity is more important than my pain an so shall it ever be”, although I disagree about the poem not being agnostic nor atheistic or being irreligious. It is not irreligious since the moment he mentions the word ‘gods’ as he might as well had replaced it with ‘I thank my luck’ or ‘my upbringing’ for example. It is not atheistic because he doesn’t specifically use the word ‘gods’ to convey the message of non existence of them. It is not religious either, because he doesn’t necessary imply the existence of a god to whom he obbeys. It is definitely an agnostic poem, as he uses both words ‘whatever’ and ‘might’ to express his ‘uncertainty’ about the existence of gods. It is my humble opinion, I am a fan of the poem but English is not my first language.

  12. This is about a dream I had last night. First of all, let me give you a little back ground. My Dad died 10 years ago and my Mom died 11 months ago. My 2 sisters and I sold the house we grew up in a few months ago. Now the dream., I dreamed I was over at our old house with my sisters and the people who bought the house were having some sort of an open house and we were there along with my parents but nobody knew who we were. It felt so good to be able to be in our old house again for a little while. As I was talking to my Mom I realized she and my Dad had already passed away and I told my Mom that this was a dream we were in and to please hold me while we could before I woke up and she did. I tried to tell my sisters that this was a dream but they wouldn’t listen to the whole story so I told them it wasn’t a good time to talk and we would later when they had time to listen to me. Later the new owners of our house were there in the garage and I thanked them for letting us come over and see the house again and how much it meant to me and how it was all a dream because my parents were there too. The guy turned to me and said it was all an Invictus. I had no idea of what he or the word meant. I don’t recall ever hearing that word. So when I woke up this morning I looked it up. I’m still not sure how to interpret this whole thing, any ideas?

  13. I think anyone that has with the help of whaer God they believe in has triumphed over adversity can relate too and love this poem. Whenever I am feeling like I can’t conquer something I remember this poem especially the last stanza.
    Thank you for your interpretation it verified what I already thought.

  14. I first read Invictus as a 12 year old. I re-read it when it came back up as a movie title a few years back. Just heard it quoted by a tv show surgeon.

    I just now realuzed, after a year of extreme loss and grief , how much it formed my approach to life from a very early point: you either give up or move on. This poem instilled in me the virtue of moving on regardless of the challenge.

  15. This poem has meant something to me since the first rime I read it. Almost as if it speaks to my soul. I love the way you broke it down. Thank you for this blog

  16. Ain’t No Grave (also known as Gonna Hold This Body Down) is a traditional American gospel song attributed to Claude Ely (1922-1978) of Virginia.

    Claude Ely describes composing the song while sick with tuberculosis in 1934 when he was twelve years old. His family prayed for his health, and in response he spontaneously performed this song.

    This is the song, performed by Bethel Music. A song of victory.

  17. Irony. I’m a 46 year old quadriplegic from a car accident at 21. For 25 years, now near the EXIT of life, I’m researching this personal favorite masterpiece. 4 weeks after reality had set in, full swing, I recall the difficult time it was to even open my eyes, for fear of seeing the heart monitor, the respirator, or for that matter, any and everything that reminded me of my new life. It was so UNFAIR was all that entered my mind. At times, for hours. It was at about that time when one morning, I awoke to a xerox copy of the following poem: INVICTUS, enlarged, taped on the wall near my bed. Still, I have no idea who timely put it on the wall; certainly God inspired someone to do so, because I was then at my breaking point. I stared at it. Constantly. I read and re-read this poem at least 1,000 times. It’s messages and metaphors then became a lasting source of peace, offering a hint of meaning, when there was none. I lost both my legs in 2017, and after 25 years as a quadriplegic, I just now learn that it was written under such similar circumstances. Irony. Can’t wait to meet WEH in the great beyond…

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