By Mahiba Arshia
Written on: 22/12/2022
Last Updated: 26/04/2023
William Ernest Henley by Harry Furniss, pen and ink, 1880s-1900s 7 1/8 in. x 4 in. (181 mm x 102 mm)
Purchased, 1948 © National Portrait Gallery, London
‘Invictus’ is a renowned poem composed by the 19th-century English critic, editor and poet William Ernest Henley. The poem, first written in 1875, was published in 1888 in his first volume of poetry known as ‘Book of Verses’. Standing out as his most notable work, his lines depict human resilience and the courage to fight on when all hope has fled. The short work received acclaim for its simplicity and uplifting tone, allowing it to continue to be hailed as a beacon of hope decades after it was written. The sincerity, power and defiance of the lyrics spark courage and optimism in whoever reads it. The reason that such a simple poem has stood the test of time is deeply rooted in its directness and themes. The rhyme scheme, while keeping the lyrics’ original power and passion, also increases their memorability. All as it preaches a message of optimism in the shadows, that everyone deserves to be reminded of now and again.
Ernest Henly and His Connection to Invictus
William Ernest Henly [1849-1902], as mentioned before, was an English editor, critic and poet, most known for his work Invictus. Born in Gloucester, he received an education at Crypt Grammar School, where served the poet T.E Brown as headmaster for a brief period. This contact with the poet laid the groundwork for his knowledge and love of literature. Unfortunately, Henley contracted tubercular arthritis at a young age leading to the twenty-five-year-old man being sent to a hospital in Edinburgh with his left leg amputated from the knee. It is in this hospital where Henly wrote his masterwork, Invictus.
The poetry now looks more honest from this vantage point. With the awareness that these are the words of a man who is unsure whether he will survive another year, the lyrics become even more poignant; a demonstration that even in the cruellest of circumstances, hope can still beam a light. The sincerity of his words adds a deeper level of courage in the writing, invoking a feeling that if such adversities can be overcome, anything can be won. It expresses the courage it takes to bring hope from within yourself when there is no hope to be found. The lyrics wonderfully portray the little flame of motivation that can be lit in one’s soul even in times of mental and physical agony. This modest flare is enough to see you through your darkest hours; to provide light on a route that will keep you going. It expresses the courage it takes to bring hope from within yourself when there is no hope to be found
Stanza by Stanza Analysis
The Victorian poem is sixteen lines long and divided into four stanzas. It follows an ABAB rhyme scheme and is written in iambic tetrameter with the exception of trochaic in the first and second lines. As expected for poems of such fame, the lines are brimmed with figures of speech and all the ways language can be bent to express one’s feelings. Metaphors, personifications, similes, irony and allusions are only some of the tricks employed to liven the lines of this inspirational piece. To understand the art and the encouragement it arouses, we must look more closely at the lines that catapulted Henly to prominence.
“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.”
The lines begin by describing the scenario in which the speaker, often assumed to be the poet, finds himself. He describes the darkness that surrounds him, engulfing him in a black as shadowy as the bottom of a pit. The tragedies of life have stricken him down and removed all possibility of illumination, leaving him in a state of mind as gloomy as the endless night sky. For him, there is no light at the end of the tunnel, no hope for a brighter future, and that his suffering may be worth something and lead to happier days. He is immersed in complete and utter hopelessness in moments of such despair. Yet, despite all this the first emotion we hear him express is gratitude. In a time where rage and self-pity are all a man can think of, the speaker proclaims how thankful he is. He raises his hand, not to one specific god, but to whoever almighty that might listen.
The themes of agnosticism reflect how suffering hardens a person and often drives them away from their faith. In moments of despair, these are the moments you turn to the powerful; and when they don’t answer your calls and begging, your belief starts to loosen. It stirs fury and betrayal in one’s soul. However, the speaker’s faith in his creator has not yet faded altogether. Unsure of the credibility of one, he turns to whichever god will lend an ear. Instead of rage, he speaks with gratitude and appreciates the one above for gifting him with such an invincible soul. He raises his hands, not as a prayer or for mercy but as a thanks.
The lines wonderfully express the resilience of the human mind. In spite of the circumstance, the speaker finds something to be grateful for. Instead of giving in to the urge for vengeance in such an unfair world, he simply carries on; fighting against the torrents of fate head-on. Instead of succumbing to his fate, he challenges it unaware of what the outcome might be. This is what he is appreciative of: the courage that is engraved in his spirit, urging him not to succumb to the harsh world that so desperately wants to crush him but to struggle on, and keep living the tempest of life.
“In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.”
The lines of the second stanza elaborate on the speaker’s trauma as a continuation of the last.
The speaker expresses how his miserable situation often chokes him with a tight grip. It has constrained him and prevented him from enjoying all the wonder of life. His despair and the cruel fate that has befallen him, try to crush him; to grasp him so tightly as if meaning to mould him into someone different.
This reflects how tragedy and trauma often change people for the worse, breaking their minds to the point where survivors come out a different person altogether. It rearranges a person’s mind and greatly impacts how they react to certain things in the future. It can feel suffocating for a person to be trapped in a loop of anguish and discomfort; to feel as though your misery is shaping you, bending your mind to form a version of you that is vulnerable and damaged. However, a strong will can save you from such a fate. The speaker expresses his own experience in dealing with such a feeling and the strength It required of him. Even in such dire circumstances, the man does not let it get the best of him. Refusing to show weakness, he does not weep or even quiver at the pain. He never complained of how cruel his fate turned out to be but accepted it as the bitter part of life he must try to defeat. His mind remains sturdy; that he will not let his sadness win. He wishes to fight on with pride in his eyes and nothing but bravery in his heart. At times, it is as if the harsh happenings are crushing, as if one is being beaten with a club till blood is on every bit of flesh. Even in circumstances as awful as such, the speaker refuses to bow his head to the fate that wishes him nothing but suffering. He fights the bounds of destiny with unconquerable courage that persists without any fear. The battle is not easy, but it is one well-fought.
The lyrics in this stanza depict the type of resolve and tenacity necessary to persevere in the face of adversity. These are the times when one’s mind is thrown into dismal darkness that just seeks to add to the agony. The intensity of a dreadful scenario weakens the brain which leads to war both within and outside the brain. This type of mental state is extremely dangerous and can drive a person insane if they aren’t strong enough to fight back. The verse emphasises the necessity of having a strong mentality; of refusing to give up and continuing to battle even when there is no indication of peace.
The only way to get through the darkest hours is to arm one’s mind so that one does not succumb to the hell that wages on outside. Maintaining a positive mindset with bright spirits even when it appears that everything is lost is a remedy that may get you through hardships.
“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.”
In the third verse, the poet emphasizes the significance of bravery once more. This time, the speaker looks deeper into the future. He admits that there is no hope for him even if he looks beyond the pain and sorrow of the present. The future he envisions is one in which the overpowering threat of death hangs overhead like a storm cloud over the wild sea, not one he deserves for his struggles. This portrays the hopelessness that surrounds the poet. A sense of entitlement naturally comes to a person who has suffered greatly, that their misery would be worth something; a feeling of hope that a brighter future is ahead since nothing could be worse than the present. But reality deems this hope entirely meaningless. This feeling however is short-lived once the pain drags on till all hope fades out. Somewhere along the way, a realization hits; that this is all meaningless. The endless and tiring fight to not succumb to the misery all around is all meaningless, as at the end of the day death reclaims all. The horror of the reaper is enough to discourage anyone from fighting on. No matter how determined a person is to live, if the world denies them that grace then death is inevitable from miles away. Similarly, the author expresses that he is well aware of his early grave. He, on the other hand, approaches the concept with unrivalled bravery. He claims that death will arrive to find him fearless.
This emphasizes the important role of mental courage in painful conditions.
One must not let the pessimism and terror that the thought of death brings, dominate their thinking. Such ideas lead to mental darkness and despair. We must never give up and cave to our anxieties; anxieties which only result in us tattered and exhausted. In times of adversity, the mind must be as fortified as a castle since it is our only shield. As Henly puts it, we must confront reality head-on with optimism and battle for our happiness.
“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.”
The most energetic stanza of the poem is the final one. It serves as a memorable and powerful conclusion to both the themes and the poem itself.
The first line is a biblical allusion to the saying, “Strait is the gate and narrow the way that leads to eternal life.” (Matthew 7:14). The speaker states that it makes no difference how terrible the journey becomes for him, nor how many years of sorrow are ahead in the book of life. He will carry on anyhow and face fate head-on.
The last two lines of the stanza, however, are the most well-known of the entire poem. They radiate resilience and determination. The strength in the words concludes the poem in a satisfying way, leaving the readers with newfound motivation in their hearts. The two lines essentially convey a message that fights any feelings of hopelessness that arise during hardships; it expresses and fulfils the need for control in one’s life especially when calamities in their life make them feel like that sense of control has evaporated from their hands.
The poem has repeatedly demonstrated how unfavourable circumstances may harm the psyche and how vital it is to have a strong will and attitude in order to not succumb to the turmoil around us. An unbending will and determination as strong as steel is required to have and retain the courage to fight fate; this ideal is the core point of the concluding lines. Misery throws a person into a state of hopeless disorder. It often finds them giving up on living a life and merely waiting for fate to take its course, yet the poet opposes this notion entirely. He insists on fighting against the tides of destiny, to search for a solution even when hope is running thin. The speaker refuses to let outward circumstances dictate his life and his happiness. The abrupt chaos that befalls a person disorients them, placing them in an overwhelming reality over which they have no control. The poet’s declaration that he is the captain of his soul is a way of regaining control over his existence. He establishes that he will not allow his misfortune to poison his mind or his future, and he communicates the same message to us; that we have the power to resist chance. We must try to find a solution no matter how much we appear to be bound by the chains of sadness. We must be incredibly resilient for fate is solely dictated by our decisions and determination to attain our goals. Thus, only we have power over our fate; we are the masters.
The heavily autobiographical poem ‘Invictus’ by William Ernest Henly is about pushing through the darkest hours of our lives with nothing but strength a strong-willed mind and a positive mindset. The bard paints the idea that our mind is our strongest weapon against the perils and sadness of reality, and that no hardship or challenge could be left unconquered as long as we can attain mental fortitude. It enforces the importance of good mental health during times of hardship. Traumatic and dreadful circumstances simply add to the person’s mental anguish, so it’s critical not to allow that to happen; to avoid falling into a depressive attitude and becoming cynical and hopeless. An optimistic mind alone won’t solve the physical problem burdening the person but it does stop the misery from spreading into the mind, the one spot where one can feel safe even if the world around them is crumbling.
The ballad fundamentally advises and encourages its readers to remain strong and carry hope in their hearts when the world refuses to provide them with any. Trauma can damage a person beyond just physically and leave them a husk of their former self. It can make a person feel as though they are alone and helpless in utter darkness. It can trap them in their own mind. This poem serves as a remedy; to pull one out of their own mental torment and prove to them that they can do better. It serves to spark hope in anyone who reads it; to give encouragement and push them to reclaim their fate. It encourages people to change their views to see in a brighter light and to find hope even when it appears useless. The lyrics hold a sense of rage, resilience and power that passes onto the readers filling them with newfound persistence.
This theme of persistence is further illustrated by the various names the poem has had in the past. The word Invictus is Latin for unconquered although this isn’t the only thematic name the poem has had. The poem was published with no title in 1888 in Henly’s first volume of poems, Book of Verses, but was afterwards reproduced in 19th-century newspapers under numerous titles. Some of these titles include ‘Song of a Strong Soul’, ‘Myself’ and ‘Clear Grit’. When the poem was included in the Oxford Book of English Verse, editor Arthur Quiller-Couch added the established title “Invictus”.
- “Invictus by William Ernest Henly .” Poetry foundation. Poetry Foundation. Accessed April 1, 2023. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51642/invictus.
- “William Ernest Henley.” Poems by the Famous Poet – All Poetry. All poetry. Accessed April 2, 2023. https://allpoetry.com/William-Ernest-Henley.
- Henley, William Ernest. A Book of Verses. Leopold Classic Library, 2015.
- “Myself”. Weekly Telegraph. Sheffield (England). 1888-09-15. p. 587.
- “Song of a Strong Soul”. Pittsburgh Daily Post. Pittsburgh, PA. 1889-07-10. p. 4.
- “Clear Grit”. Commercial Advertiser. Buffalo, NY. 1889-07-12. p. 2.
- Quiller-Couch, Arthur, and Rosamund Philpott. The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900: Chosen & Edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1926.
- LitCharts. “Invictus Summary & Analysis by William Ernest Henley.” LitCharts. Accessed April 26, 2023. https://www.litcharts.com/poetry/william-ernest-henley/invictus.
- “William Ernest Henley.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Accessed April 26, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Ernest-Henley#ref215876.
- Silviandari, Novia Permata, and M. Suryadi. “Invictus Poem by William Ernest and Its Contribution to the Social Environment during Pandemic: Study of Sociology Literature.” E3S Web of Conferences 317 (2021): 03010. https://doi.org/10.1051/e3sconf/202131703010.
- Spacey, Andrew. “Analysis of Poem ‘Invictus’ by W.E. Henley – Owlcation.” Owlcation, July 10, 2022. https://owlcation.com/humanities/Analysis-of-Poem-Invictus-by-WEHenley.
- Jenson, Jamie. “Invictus by William Ernest Henley.” Poem Analysis. Poem Analysis, November 9, 2022. https://poemanalysis.com/william-ernest-henley/invictus/
- Geraldventa. “Mimetic Analysis in William Ernest Henley’s ‘Invictus.’” The Library’s Infamous Section, 18 July 2021,
Cover image: Ship in the Stormy Sea by Ivan Aivazovky
This was my first completed piece and thus has some flaws. During the process of writing this, some sources had gotten lost and so the citations remain somewhat incomplete. It is a minor issue and won’t hamper your reading much. Although I am not entirely satisfied with the quality of this paper, I do hope my interpretation of this lovely poem can be of some help to you.