Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
of Work and Year of Publication
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
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).
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.
Poem Praised and Ridiculed
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).
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.
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.
is “Invictus"good or bad?
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
Black as the Pit
from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may
For my unconquerable
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
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced
nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of
My head is bloody,
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,
Beyond this place of wrath
Looms but the Horror
of the shade, 10
And yet the menace of the
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
It matters not how strait
How charged with
punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
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
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.
What is the meaning of chance (line 7)?
word charged (line 14) has several meanings. What does the author
intend it to mean?
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.