An interpretation of the following lines from "Invictus"?  "It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll ..."Those 2 lines were followed by the famous "I am the...

An interpretation of the following lines from "Invictus"? 

"It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll ..."

Those 2 lines were followed by the famous "I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.".  But the two preceding lines blur my attempt to understand the context in which he wrote them.  I know that he was ill and probably wrote these lines in a hospital.  He was also an antheist.  But the first 2 lines suggest he was at Heaven's gate (?).  PLease help!

Expert Answers
Michael Ugulini eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The lines…

"It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll ..."

…must be analyzed in light of the stanzas before it, because this gives these lines context and contributes to the whole of the poem and a better understanding of the first two lines of the final stanza.

One interpretation of these lines is that the writer of this poem, William Ernest Henley, believes, through his words in the opening stanza, that his soul is unconquerable.  He indicates here that he is the master of his own fate, that no god or gods, nor anyone in essence can conquer his soul. This is a defiant, bold statement that he will stand his ground concerning his beliefs, which he holds to (whether they are right or wrong).

In addition, the poet indicates that, although he has been beaten and bloodied in life because of time, chance, and circumstance, he has not wilted in defeat. He says that he has remained “unbowed.” He champions the thought that he has not cried aloud in distress with an attitude of defeat. He has plodded on and continued to fight the fights in life, because of his own sense of what bravery and stalwartness is, in association with his beliefs and ideologies.

He sees ahead, beyond the trials and tribulations of this life, a time of darkness of death. Whether he believes in an afterlife or not – his view is that life in an afterlife will be desolate; if there is no afterlife, then he ceases to be and that is it. This is, as he says, “…the Horror of the shade…”

As a result, the final stanza, and the abovementioned lines that prompted this question, are now clearer, based on the words preceding them. Henley doesn’t care how strait the gate is, or how charged with punishments the scroll is (talking of the Bible here). Defiantly, he, as one who has freedom of choice, is the master of his fate and the captain of his soul (his life) based on the decisions he makes.

These decisions do have consequences. He upholds his right to be the master of hi fate – he can choose right or wrong, good or evil, and reap the consequences of his choices. He is saying, no matter what, he will decide and hold his fate in his hands by his decisions and actions and beliefs . The rewards and punishments to come in the future will not stop him from being his own man now. He fears the "horror of the Shade", but this will not stop him from calling the shots in his life as suits him.

ms-mcgregor eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The defiant tone of this poem reinforced by the two Biblical allusions in the lines you are referring to. "It matters not how strait the gate" is an allusion to Matthew 7:13 when Jesus says, "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it." Jesus is saying that those who go to heaven must go through a narrow or "straight" gate. Henley obvious disagrees with this Biblical injunction because he is saying it doesn't matter how "straight" or narrow the gate is, Henley will decide his own fate. The second part of the line" How charged with punishments the scroll. . . is also a Biblcal allusion to Revelation 20:12"

greimour | Student

regarding my above answer - I have read two copies of invictus and one says gate where the other says gait - as I can only trust wiki as to which is the right one, I wrote based on the one I read first which cause me no end of brain pain trying to figure out why strait and gait were in the same sentence.

It was after reading he had a leg amputated that I started to draw my conclusions.

Like I said - Incomplete knowledge.

My final interpretation of that final stanza however, remains the same no matter which one I read.

christina0811 | Student

The actual line says, "It matters not how strait the gait..." The definition of strait is difficult or challenging, and the definition of gait is the way a person walks (or a horse trots). So the direct translation is, "It matters not how difficult the journey or hike, how consequential their laws.." The narrator is stating his defiance to the others who are the rulers of the conquered.