William Ernest Henley
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.
“Invictus” is Latin for “unconquered,” and the power in Henley’s Victorian verses has resonated through the decades. The poem has been associated with struggles across the globe, but that’s not the reason why it’s always stood out to me since stumbling across it online a couple years back.
Henley’s sentiment is unflinching, and that’s why it strikes me. The poem acknowledges life’s inherent hardships and the cruel turns of the wheel of fortune; in fact, it devotes its strongest language to describing this - from “the bludgeonings of chance,” “the Horror of the shade,” “the menace of the years,” the scroll lined with punishments that awaits us. Death, in every sense of the word, the progression of the inevitable. But “Invictus” is dedicated to the belief that life is stronger than death. That, despite the reality of the end that hovers over our lives, the power residing in our souls can change our destinies. There is no predestination in Henley’s mind, aside from hurtling towards the end. Everything except the end is left up to one’s own sense of self-determination. “My head is bloody, but unbowed.” Henley has not given in to his trials, and he urges us to do the same. He assures us that no one can erase our sense of agency; it is ours as long as we seize it. Of course, sometimes the idea of taking that first step in claiming our self-control can sometimes be the most intimidating part.
Who among us has not felt untethered and out of control in our lives? We have all felt, at some point, powerless against the hurdles life sets for us. We all sometimes end up drowning in our failures, losing ourselves in our flaws, feeling like we will never make a difference in our lives or anyone else’s. But the power in every stanza of this poem has been a comfort to me in difficult times, reminding me that of course I have power, of course I have a voice, because no one and nothing can take away my spirit. My soul is unconquerable and I am its captain, and together we can triumph over the entire world.