Poem of the Day: William Ernest Henley’s “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.

In Latin, invictus means ‘unconquerable’ or ‘undefeated’, and this word provides the perfect title for William Ernest Henley’s poem, published in 1888. The English poet published “Invictus” in his book of poems entitled Book of Verses, though it is the only piece for which he is truly recognized. The poem is a lyric with an a-b-a-b rhyme scheme and has four stanzas with four lines each. However, the beauty of the poem does not lie in clever ambiguity or structure or unique imagery, but rather in the simplicity and intensity with which Henley addresses the determination of an unbreakable spirit.
“Invictus” is one of the first poems I ever read and also one of the first poems that ever made my heart beat faster with understanding. A moment of complete clarity and self-awareness is experienced when a piece of art touches you, and almost every time I read “Invictus”  I have that exact sensation.
One of the main reasons “Invictus”  resonates with me is its profound meaning; no matter what circumstance or situation someone is in, there has been a point in everyone’s life where he/she has felt like the world is working against them or he/she is stuck in a predicament from which there is no escape nor solution, but there is always a reward for those who persevere. “Invictus”  outlines the idea that no matter what hardships or obstacles may be set in one’s path, an “unconquerable soul” will always prevail.
This idea is emphasized by Henley’s strong, evocative word choice and repetition of phrases that represent hardship and determination. Words and phrases like “the night,” “Black as the Pit,” “fell clutch of circumstance,” “bludgeonings of chance,” “head is bloody,” “place of wrath and tears,” “menace of the years,” “strait the gate,” and “charged with punishments,” all describe the hardships and unhappiness that have befallen the speaker. Whereas “unconquerable soul,” “not winced nor cried aloud,” “unbowed,” “unafraid,” and “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul,” are all words and phrases that seem to be rebelling against the idea of hardships breaking the narrator’s spirit. This rebellion, this unfaltering determination is what makes the narrator so admirable and inspiring. At the end of the day, this poem inspires me to believe that I have control over all aspects of my life and I have power over any growth or setbacks I experience. It encourages me to face my challenges head-on and without fear. It pushes me to be invictus.
                                                   Mehak Chawla

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