Invictus, William Ernest Henley – an Analysis


Hmm. Strength. Victory. Conquering all?

Gut Reaction
Well that’s a big middle finger to anything trying to tell you to go anything other than your own way, isn’t it?

What does it all mean?
Out of the night that covers me,
Night is when we over-think our problems and when we’re waiting for something, or dreading something, the night never seems to end. It covers you like a suffocating blanket and pins you to your bed.
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
However low my life has got (nice imagery with climbing out of a pit so deep it is black to look at its endless bottom), wherever I am in the world.
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
No matter how hard life gets, I thank the faith I have for keeping me strong.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Whatever life has thrown at me with whatever circumstances I have found myself in, I haven’t flinched back, nor have I shown I am suffering by crying out – in pain, fear, acknowledgement that something is, in that moment, bigger than I am able to handle.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Chance keeps rearing its head at me only to hit me over and over again until I feel that every chance I get is a thump. I’m injured, by my head won’t drop. I will keep on standing. I will not give in.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,

Once this awful period is over, I know there are more hurdles to cross in the Great Unknown. Could shade also refer to death? That’s a pretty big unknown, isn’t it?
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

But I’ve become so accustomed to dealing with difficult things, I’ll face whatever is flung at me from the dark.

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

It doesn’t matter how difficult or narrow the way appears. Whatever comes my way or what happens to me.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

I am my own destiny, I am still me, I will always remain strong.

Form – the vaguely technical stuff
Division and order
Four quatrains of iambic octameter.

Determined. Powerful. Unwielding and overall, strong. Defiant. I will not be beaten.

Suggested rhyme scheme

Similes and metaphors
The night that covers me – could this be a metaphor for inescapable death as well as being the night where we worry over everything instead of sleeping?
Black as the pit – is this reference to life’s challenges tha are so hard to climb out of that it feels like we’re in a pit? Does it refer to hell, because let’s face it, some problems feel like something that inescapable? Is it a nod to miners who would slave away beneath ground but never give up or doubt that they’d see the light of day again?
Horror of the shade – is this death? Personifying Horror to make it The Reaper clutching its scythe, or is it easier to face death if you give it a name, a face? Is death so terrifying because we don’t know what to expect or when to expect it?

Author’s relationship with their subject
I will overcome all. And I am proud of my strength.

Other points of view (ideas from other sources)
This is seen as a poem of strength and yet it is also met with ridicule. It is as if the poet is saying, I, mere human, can conquer even death.

Signing off
W E Henley was the epitome of strong. Born with tuberculosis, he lived his life in the shade of this awful disease. Did he fear becoming a shadow of his own self? Is this poem his own post-it on the bathroom mirror reminding him to never, ever give up, or give in, to this illness? This poem was written whilst infirm following one amputation of a leg and the long process of saving the other.

Or perhaps he didn’t find himself strong at all, and instead was in awe at the strength of another? His poems are often found to have been dedicated to a flour merchant named Robert Thomas Hamilton Bruce.

Maybe we can interpret this poem as one written by a man scared by his own mortality. Imagine living your life with such a debilitating illness, going into hospital after having one leg amputated and wondering if you’ll end up losing the other? I’d say keeping breathing, having the ability to concentrate on poetry whilst all this is happening around you could be classed as strength. It is defiance itself.

Or is it?

Is it a fearful clutching defiance, like when you are faced with a spider and keep telling yourself you are bigger, stronger than it, there is absolutely no need to be afraid. And then it moves a leg, and your skin crawls, there’s a sheen to your skin under the sweat of fear that’s washed over you, and you’re not so big and brave after all. When facing down our fears, are we not supposed to tremble even just a little?



Poetry Foundation

When I read this I think of the song… I Will Not Bow


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