A Poem by William Ernest Henley (1849-1903)
A Study Guide
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.
.......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.
......."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).
By William Ernest Henley
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
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 soin spite of the punishments that fate has allotted himbecause 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.
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