Meaning of the Poem ‘Invictus’ by William Ernest Henley

Power of a Poem

During his internment at Robben Island, former South African president and Nobel Laureate Nelson Mandela said it was ‘Invictus’ that inspired him and kept him going throughout his years of imprisonment and suffering. It is astounding to think how poetry can inspire great leaders, true to the saying that words can either make or break a person.

Whenever I think of the poem ‘Invictus’, I am reminded of the quote from the movie ‘Dead Poets Society’ where Robin Williams’ character John Keating says, No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world. This poetry is proof that this quote is an axiom, and illustrates the power of words.

Poetry is one of the most beautiful forms of expression that can inspire, cheer, break, melt, and touch our hearts. Poetry can inspire to break the shackles of misery in our minds, and to surmount our own thought of succumbing to fate. And this very thought has been beautifully encapsulated into words by English poet William Ernest Henley. This beautiful piece of poetry goes something like this.

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.

― William Ernest Henley

Meaning of the Poem

  • This is a subtle poem, which effectively gives out a strong message without using bold words. In the first stanza, he thanks the Gods, or whatever unknown power it is, that has kept him going despite being thrown into a dark pit by fate. He reiterates the title of the poem that indicates that whatever it might be, his soul is invincible. He has the strength to refuse wishes and whims of fate.
  • The second stanza describes how, despite being wounded by the miseries of fate, he will continue to fight and will never bow before it, at any point of time. The underlying message for the readers is to go out and give your best, and not sit back and accept whatever life has offered us.
  • Further, he says let destiny weave all moments of suffering for him, he was unafraid and will remain so. So undeterred should be your passion to live life on your own terms that, he says, let not the sufferings break you down at any single moment in life.
  • The last stanza features the most impactful lines: ‘It matters not how strait the gate’, this tells the reader that his passion is not mindful of how narrow the escape route is, or what convention says. He will always listen to his inner conscience and is ready to face all opposition. 

To sum up the entire poem, the last lines say it all :

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

Inspired By a Personal Crisis

The word ‘Invictus’ is Latin word for ‘Invincible’. It means one who is incapable of being won over. Life is one of our biggest teachers who imparts lessons through suffering and challenges. The poet, William Ernest Henley had to face a similar situation in his personal life, and this poem has been inspired by that struggle. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which deteriorated further, requiring amputation of one of his legs. Following the amputation, he was asked to undergo a similar surgery for his other leg, too. But Henley refused to budge, and sought a second opinion from noted doctor Joseph Lister, who managed to save the other leg. While undergoing these trials and tribulations, he wrote his thoughts in the form of verses, and ‘Invictus’ was born. True to his poetry, he thrived on hope, and did not succumb to despair. He lifted his spirits, and along with the efforts of the doctor, proved that nothing is impossible if you decide to work on it patiently.

Life can be harsh, yet let it not faze and fade your dreams. Every single moment is precious and agonies of life should not deter you from achieving your goal, at any point of time. If you feel walloped by the struggles of life, remember the verses of this poem. Other than that, any piece of poetry can be interpreted in many ways that will appeal to the reader. If you feel inspired by Invictus, and wish to voice your interpretation, kindly use the comments section below.

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