A Poem by William Ernest Henley (1849-1903)
A Study Guide
Cummings Guides Home..|..Contact This Site
Type of Work
Title and Dedication
Is It Overrated?
Text of the Poem
Questions, Essay Topics
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2009
Type of Work and Year of Publication

.......“Invictus” is a lyric poem in four quatrains (four-line stanzas). William Ernest Henley wrote it in 1875 but did not publish it until 1892 in a collection entitled Echoes

Title and Dedication

.......“Invictus” is Latin for unconquerable, invincible, undefeated. 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 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. 

A Poem Praised and Ridiculed

......."Invictus" appears in prestigious anthologies, including Modern British Poetry (New York, Harcourt, 1920). Not a few poetry enthusiasts regard it as an inspiring work. Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela both recited from it to stir their listeners. So did Martin Luther King Jr. The Republican candidate in the 2008 U.S. Presidential election, Senator John McCain, committed it to memory in his youth, according to a New York Times Op-Ed article by William Kristol (January 21, 2008). In Best Remembered Poems, Martin Gardner writes, “The poem is a favorite of secular humanists who see themselves and the human race as unconquerable masters of  their fate in a mindless universe that cares not a fig for what happens to them.” (Mineola, N.Y.: Courier Dover Publications, 1992).
.......Nevertheless, many critics ridicule the poem as mediocre at best, and most modern anthologies refuse to admit it to their pages. One reason for the snubbing is the poem's seemingly melodramatic tone, like that of a windy politician declaiming from a soapbox. Another reason is its singsong versification. 
.......However, the poem lives on despite the criticism and despite its disappearance from poetry texts. For one thing, it has a ring that makes it quotable, a quality lacking in many rhymeless verses today. (Musicality was a sine qua non of many great nineteenth-century poets, including Poe, Tennyson, and Wordsworth.) For another, it is unabashedly straightforward in an age when poets lard their verses with prolix ambiguity and nebulous allusions. 
.......So is “Invictus”good or bad?
.......Jazz composer Duke Ellington (1899-1974) has been quoted as saying of music, “If it sounds good, it is good.” To some poetry enthusiasts, “Invictus” is a rousing paean; to others, it is just noise.

By William Ernest 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. 

Comments, Stanza 1

Night is a metaphor for suffering of any kind. It is also part of a simile and a hyperbole in which the speaker compares the darkness of his suffering to the blackness of a hellish pit stretching from the north pole to the south pole. In line 4, unconquerable establishes the theme and a link with the title (Latin for unconquerable).

In the fell clutch of circumstance          5
  I have not winced nor cried aloud. 
Under the bludgeonings of chance 
  My head is bloody, but unbowed. 

Comments, Stanza 2

This stanza begins with another metaphor, comparing circumstance to a creature with a deadly grip (fell clutch). Alliteration occurs in clutch, circumstance, and cried, in not and nor, and in bludgeonings, bloody, but, and unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears 
  Looms but the Horror of the shade,   10
And yet the menace of the years 
  Finds, and shall find, me unafraid. 

Comments, Stanza 3

In line 10, shade is a metaphor for death. In this same line, horror suggests that the speaker believes in an afterlife in spite of the seemingly agnostic third line of the first stanza. If there were no afterlife, there could be no horror after death. Menace of the years is a metaphor for advancing age. 

It matters not how strait the gate, 
  How charged with punishments the scroll, 
I am the master of my fate:   15
  I am the captain of my soul.

Comments, Stanza 1

Here, strait means narrow, restricted. To escape from “the fell clutch of circumstance” and “bludgeonings of chance,” the speaker must pass through a narrow gate. He believes he can do so—in spite of the punishments that fate has allotted him—because his iron will refuses to bend.


Study Questions and Essay Topics

1. Read the paragraphs under "A Poem Praised and Ridiculed." Then write a short essay arguing that the poem is worthy of praise or deserving of ridicule.
2. What is the meaning of chance (line 7)? 
3..The word charged (line 14) has several meanings. What does the author intend it to mean?
3. Do you believe that you are the master of your fate (line 15)? Or do your genes, your environment, and other factors place your fate outside of your control? Present your opinion in a short essay.