Henley's Invictus Analysis

Invictus

Introduction

There are moments in our lives when we feel incredibly despondent towards the terrible hardships and challenges we have to overcome. How we react to the “clutch of circumstance” and that despair can define our identity.

It is important to note that William Ernest Henley wrote “Invictus” while he was being treated for tuberculosis of the bones. His left leg was amputated from the knee down when he was seventeen and this poem is a beautiful expression of his determination to conquer adversity despite enduring years of horrible physical and emotional agony.

Invictus

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.

Suffering

The theme of suffering is an important aspect of the poem. This anguish begins in the opening line with the reference to “night” – a time when it is much more difficult for us to see and make sense of our surroundings. We can become frightened and nervous because of the unseen dangers that may be hidden in that darkness, especially if we are in an unfamiliar landscape. This image is a very effective symbol for our deep-rooted fears about our future because, sometimes, we can feel disorientated and in the dark about our own lives.

The sense of despondency is then heightened by how the darkness “covers” him. It seems he is enveloped by that hopelessness and it becomes overwhelming and inescapable.

The simile comparing the “night” to “Black as the Pit” reinforces this sense of fear. The reference to pit could imply the absolute darkness of a subterranean mine and that experience of being completely distant from any light. However, Henley capitalises “Pit” which links the night to the eternal blackness of hell. In this way, the speaker believes his whole world “from pole to pole” is damned.

In terms of structure, by placing “black” at the start of the line, the word becomes the stressed syllable of a trochaic foot so we will place more emphasis on the sound when we read the poem aloud. This is a simple but effective way of drawing attention to the despair suggested by the image.

The also speaker recognises that we cannot always control “fate” and the “fortune” that impacts our identity. This realisation is clear in the second stanza when he states he was in the “clutch of circumstance”. The inevitable bad luck is reinforced in the very violent image “bludgeonings of chance”. It is as if the speaker has been beaten and battered by “chance” until his “head is bloody”. This depiction of life being brutal is emphasised further by the alliteration of the plosive /b/ connecting “bludgeonings” and “bloody”. However, the sound is picked up again in “unbowed” which suggests he will not be defeated by “chance”!

There is no doubt that speaker believes the world is cruel. This gloom is epitomised by his description of life as “this place of wrath and tears”. The word “wrath” signifies the tremendous anger in the world. Since “wrath” is also a deadly sin, the speaker is implying there is a lack of morality too. It is enough to make him shed “tears”.

The speaker recognises there might be even more cruel suffering to come, referring to the afterlife as the “Horror of the shade”. This frightening image is effective because it reminds the reader that the future is unknown. It could simply be a shadow of this existence, but the word “horror” suggests a more terrifying and macabre experience. Clearly, he is not that optimistic that there will ever an eternal rest.

Unconquerable Resilience

Despite the feelings of hopelessness and gloom, the speaker is resolute that they will not be defeated. This wonderful determination is clear in the way they “thank” the “gods” for their “unconquerable soul” in the first stanza. It seems that the darkness can only cover his physical and emotional world, but it cannot penetrate his soul and he will not wince or cry.

The adjective “unconquerable” obviously connects to the title, reinforcing this tremendous sense of defiance. However, Henley published the poem in 1875 without a title. “Invictus” as was added by the editor, Arthur Quiller-Couch, when it was included the Oxford Book of English Verse published in 1900.

The speaker believes his self-determination and desire to overcome adversity is the most important part of his identity. If there is to be no respite from his suffering, even in death, the speaker will be “unbowed” and “unafraid”. By using negative prefixes rather than affirmative statements, such as substituting “brave” or “calm” for “unafraid”, the poet knows it would be easy to give into fear, but he will keep his head held high.

There is wonderful tone of certainty in the two declaratives at the end of the poem. This confidence is created by the anaphora “I am” and the repetition of the possessive pronoun “my”. Both “master” and “captain” refer to positions of authority. In other words, the speaker owns his “fate” and “soul”, and he will not allow himself to be a victim. Interestingly, the verb “to master” can also mean to conquer or overcome. Put simply, nothing can defeat the speaker.

Freedom and Fate

The conflict between free will and fate is an important theme which runs throughout the poem. For example, the speaker has no control over the “night” which “covers”, but he makes a conscious decision to remain resilient against that darkness.

The references to the “clutch of circumstance” and the “bludgeonings of chance” also acknowledge our inability to completely “master” our surroundings and dictate events. Of course, these images are made more menacing through the use of the personification of “circumstance” grabbing our lives with its hands and “chance” being able to strike us with its club. There is also something quite unnerving about “clutch” and “circumstance” not actually being alliteration.

However, the speaker is convinced he can overcome any adversity because he has the power to make his own choices in life. The world is full of constraints. How we react to those challenges is up to us!

Interestingly, in classical mythology, fate is often depicted as a tapestry being woven by three goddess who are deciding our future. There could be a subtle reference to this motif in the description of circumstance’s “fell clutch” and, in the third quatrain, how death “looms” inevitably “beyond this place”. A loom is a machine for weaving fabric and, in needlework, the verb “fell” refers to finishing a seam by sewing the edge down flat.

In conclusion, we can control our own thoughts and actions, but we can only remain resilient against those destructive forces that are beyond our scope and rule.

Faith

In the final quatrain, the speaker defiantly claims it does not matter “how strait the gate” because he is able to determine his own “fate” and “soul”. This image is an obvious allusion to the Gospel of Matthew and its account of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount: “Because strait is the gate… which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matthew 7:14. KJB). In this passage, “life” probably refers to eternal salvation and there will only be a “few” people who reach that glory because it is difficult to remain pious and virtuous in a world full of sinners. Not everyone will be able to get through the narrow “gate” of Heaven.

However, the speaker dismisses this warning and thinks it “matters not” because he is in absolute control of his “fate”. He also rejects the threat of punishment outlined by the “scroll”, which could refer to the sacred scriptures and the threat of eternal damnation. Again, he is the “master” of his “soul” and he will not allow religious beliefs and doctrine to dictate his future.

This ambivalence towards faith and the divine is set up in the opening lines of the poem when the speaker wants to “thank whatever gods may be” for his “unconquerable soul”. The signifier “soul” refers to our spiritual essence and morality, but the adjective “whatever” used to describe vague noun “gods” reveals the speaker’s scepticism of Christianity. Put simply, Henley did not write a devotional phrase such as “I think God for my unconquerable soul”. In this way, the poem suggests the speaker’s inner strength and determination is more important than any supernatural intervention.

Structure

The poem consists of four quatrains with a loose iambic tetrameter base. For example:

  x       /     x      /       x    /      x     /
My head | is blood | y, but | unbowed.

Most lines contain eight syllables with this rhythm of unstressed and stressed beat. Here, three of stressed sounds are the plosive /b/ and this helps to draw the audience’s ear to the most important words of the sentence and the speaker’s determination to defeat the difficulties in his life.

Some lines switch the opening stressed and unstressed syllables. For example, the poem begins with the trochee “out of”. By placing the emphasises on “out”, Henley is able to subtly introduce the theme of self-determination and the importance of taking action in our dark world.

Finally, there is an abab rhyme scheme throughout the poem. For example, in the second quatrain, “circumstance” in the first line rhymes with “chance” in the third, and “aloud” rhymes with “unbowed” at the end of the verse. This alternative rhyme is a traditional form of poetry, but the confidence of the rhythm reinforces the confidence of speaker.

Comprehension Questions

  1. How does the reference to “night” and the way it “covers” the speaker suggest he is feeling incredibly despondent?
  2. How is this “black” sadness reinforced by the comparison of the “night” to the “Pit”?
  3. Despite this terrible darkness, how does the speaker feel at the end of the first quatrain?
  4. Suggest why Henley refers to “gods”, “circumstance” and “chance”. What do they suggest about his view of the world?
  5. How does the speaker react to the awful “bludgeonings” he has suffered?
  6. How does the third quatrain suggest our world is cruel?
  7. What does the speaker imagine happens “beyond this place”?
  8. Why will the speaker be “unafraid”?
  9. How does the final quatrain convey the speaker’s determination and desire to overcome adversity?
  10. What message was the poet trying to convey to reader in “Invictus”
  11. How does the form of the poem support that meaning?

PwC’s Advertisement

In their role as official supporters of the 2014 Invictus Games in London, PwC created an evocative reading of the poem by some famous faces from sport and television. It certainly captures the poem’s tone of defiance and the speaker’s desire to overcome all the obstacles in their life.

Related Pages

If you are preparing for CCEA’s Identity Anthology, it might be worth considering “Here” by R. S. Thomas and how both poems deal with the theme of suffering. Another obvious connection is with Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 29” and the confidence both speakers express about their identity in the poems.

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