by William Earnest Henley
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 fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
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.
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.
“Invictus” is one of those poems that’s familiar even if you’ve never read it. Maybe you’ve heard of the title (which inspired, among other things, a movie about Nelson Mandela, a men’s fragrance, a CrossFit workout, and Prince Harry’s sporting competition for wounded veterans). Certain phrases from the poem have wide circulation—master of my fate, captain of my soul, bloody but unbowed, clutch of circumstance—and whole lines have shown up everywhere from a Winston Churchill speech to a scene from Casablanca to a Lana Del Ray song. You probably even know the poet without knowing the poet (more on that later). So it’s good to see the whole of “Invictus” and understand why it’s had such broad appeal over centuries and continents.
As for me, the appeal is limited. I don’t love this poem, but I can’t help but feel roused after reading it. It’s a veritable shot of adrenaline to those on their last legs. Which is actually where the poem came from. From someone on his last leg.
At age twelve poet William Earnest Henley (1849-1903) had a leg amputated because of tuberculosis of the bone. In his early twenties doctors wanted to amputate his other leg. But Henley sought out the famous surgeon Joseph Lister (pioneer in preventative medicine, eponym of Listerine) who used antiseptic techniques to save Henley’s remaining limb. While recovering in the hospital for three years, Henley wrote “Invictus,” Latin for “unconquered.”
Henley was a magazine editor, critic, playwright and poet. He’s often called the Samuel Johnson of the Victorian era, so striking his influence. The circle of writers he published and befriended included Robert Louise Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, H.G. Wells and W.B. Yeats.
A tall, muscular man with a red bushy beard and big personality, Henley was surprisingly agile on his wooden leg and cane. And here’s how you might know him: he was the inspiration for the most famous pirate of all time, Long John Silver from Treasure Island. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote to Henley, “I will now make a confession: It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver … the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you.” …
His only child, Margaret Emma, lives on in literature as well. She used to call J.M. Barrie her “fwendy-wendy,” and so the character of Wendy in Peter Pan was born. Margaret Emma died of meningitis at age five.
Henley died of complications of tuberculosis at age fifty-three.
I left “Invictus” in a co-working site in Detroit. No one took it down for a few days and as far as I know it’s still there. Maybe the poem will inspire confidence in a beleaguered entrepreneur wandering the halls.
And for you readers, I hope as much.
Be it personal, political, or meteorological, whatever place of wrath and tears you’ve lived through this past year, whatever bludgeoning of chance you’ve faced, here you are, in 2018, unconquered, invictus.
Happy New Year.