“Invictus” is a short poem first published in 1888 that expresses the speaker’s resolution to remain in control of his own fate.
- In the midst of an all-encompassing darkness, the speaker thanks “whatever gods may be” for his own “unconquerable soul.”
- The speaker asserts that he remains “unbowed” by the blows life has dealt him and “unafraid” of the inevitability of death.
- Finally, the speaker emphasizes that he will remain undaunted no matter what, saying, “I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul.”
Last Updated on June 9, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 901
“Invictus” (which means “unconquered” in Latin) was originally published with no title in William Ernest Henley’s first poetry collection, Book of Verses, in 1888, though it was written thirteen years earlier, while Henley was recovering from an operation to save his one remaining leg. It was published under various titles such as “Captain of My Soul,” “Myself,” and “Master of His Fate” in Victorian papers and anthologies. However, it was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who supplied the single Latin word “Invictus” for its appearance in The Oxford Book of English Verse in 1900. The poem is one of the best-known pieces of Victorian verse and is often quoted alongside the works of Rudyard Kipling and Sir Henry Newbolt as a quintessential articulation of late nineteenth-century Stoicism.
The poem is divided into four stanzas, each containing four lines. In the initial stanza, the first-person speaker refers to the absolute darkness which covers him, then adds that this darkness extends “from pole to pole,” suggesting it is something universal, rather than purely personal despair. This dichotomy is never explored, as the poet casually extends his own experiences into a general comment on the evils that beset humanity as a whole. In the midst of this darkness, he says, he thanks “whatever gods may be” for his “unconquerable soul.” The reference to the “gods” establishes the fundamentally pagan and even anti-Christian tone of the poem. The speaker has no hope of heaven or any other afterlife. He does not believe in the one God of the Bible. He merely acknowledges that there might be some gods, in whom he has no particular interest, and from whom he does not expect help. The important matter is the phrase with which he ends the poem, his “unconquerable soul,” which depends on no supernatural power and is proof against any ordeal.
In the second stanza the speaker makes two very similar points, establishing his Stoical indifference to the vicissitudes of life. He says that the “fell clutch of circumstance” has never caused him to cry out, or even to wince, the smallest possible reaction that pain might cause. The phrase “fell clutch of circumstance” is something of a paradox, if not quite an oxymoron. The word “clutch” suggests intention, while the word “circumstance” makes it clear that the speaker’s troubles are not caused by supernatural malevolence, but are the arbitrary result of a world that appears hostile despite its lack of a will. The paradox is repeated in “the bludgeonings of chance.” Blows rain down upon the speaker, and his head is bloodied by them, though he stubbornly refuses to bow, which would be a gesture of submission and defeat. These painful blows, however, come not from any agent, whether natural or supernatural, but mere chance. This intensifies the idea that life is inherently hostile.
The third stanza begins with an explicit statement of atheism and nihilism. Beyond the world, which is hopeless and miserable, described as a “place of wrath and tears,” there is no hope for anything better. No heaven awaits us as a reward for virtue, only “the Horror of the shade.” There is some danger of contradiction here, as well as hyperbole. Many readers might find the relentless focus on gloom and darkness throughout the poem to be hyperbolic, even while they are unable to deny the reality of the side of life Henley depicts. However, the idea contained in “the Horror of the shade” seems internally inconsistent. Is death to be nothing (“the shade”), or will it be horrible? The use of the verb “looms,” however, suggests the solution that it is the anticipation of death that is horrible and that what awaits both speaker and reader is the horrifying anticipation of death, followed by the nothingness of death itself. The second half of the stanza refers to “the menace of the years,” reinforcing the idea of the end of life as a looming, threatening disaster. However, this menace cannot terrify the speaker. It finds him unafraid and, he confidently predicts, will continue to do so.
The final stanza begins with a reference to the Gospel of Matthew 7:14:
Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
The speaker asserts that it does not matter “how strait the gate” or how full of punishments the “scroll” may be. This remark is somewhat unclear and might be interpreted in a number of ways, including as an admission that, despite Henley’s nihilistic atheism throughout the rest of the poem, he has a fatalistic religious attitude where damnation is concerned. A more consistent reading, however, would be that despite the Biblical reference, the speaker is once again talking more generally about the difficult and painful nature of human existence. Anything worthwhile is hard to achieve, and life is full of pains that seem like punishments inflicted by authority, whether they really are or not. The essential meaning, however one construes these two lines, is that it does not matter what happens, however painful and difficult. The final two lines, probably the best-known and most often quoted in the poem, state confidently that the speaker is the master of his fate and the captain of his soul. He dominates his destiny, controlling the situation however dire it looks, and steers his soul in the direction he chooses, as a captain steers his ship.