Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.
'Invictus' Poem Meaning and Summary
'Invictus' is a poem which focuses on the human spirit and its ability to overcome adversity. It is a rallying cry for those who find themselves in dark and trying situations, who have to dig deep and fight for their lives. The poet certainly knew hard times and needed all his strength to battle against disease.
Born in Gloucester, England, in 1849, he was diagnosed with tubercular arthritis at the age of 12 and went through years of pain and discomfort.
W.E. Henley wrote 'Invictus' some years later whilst in hospital undergoing treatment for tuberculosis of the bones, specifically those in his left leg, which had to be amputated from the knee down. He was still only a young man at this time.
He managed to save his right leg by refusing surgery and seeking an alternative form of treatment from a Scottish doctor, James Lister.
It was during his time in Edinburgh that Henley met the writer Robert Louis Stevenson. They became friends and corresponded on a regular basis. Stevenson later admitted that he had based his character Long John Silver—from the book Treasure Island—on Henley, he having a wooden leg, a strong rasping voice and a forceful personality.
- 'Invictus' does contain passion and defiance and it is easy to see just why so many use the powerful lines to drum up courage and to shed light into the darker corners when all else fails.
- Written in 1875 and published in 1888, it retains its original power and conviction, the simple rhyme scheme tightening the lines and making them memorable.
Henley's personal experience on the operating table and in a hospital bed, facing possible death, certainly helped him create one of the most popular poems in the English language.
'Invictus' by William Ernest Henley
Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis on 'Invictus'
The imagery is strong. It is night time, the dark covers everything in black. The night then becomes a symbol of hopelessness, a depressive medium in which the soul is lost. The future cannot be seen.
This is similar in feeling to the idea of St John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic, writing in the 16th century of 'the dark night of the soul', where the human spirit has lost its normal confident, self-assured status.
Although the poem doesn't explicitly mention Christianity, there is a sense that this opening line is rooted in religiousness. The speaker is coming out of a period of total darkness, a hell.
The second line reinforces the first—the black pit suggesting that this was a deep depression, a spiritual darkness covering the whole world, the world being that of the speaker.
And lines three and four acknowledge that help was given somewhere, somehow, perhaps by a deity or deities, not by any named god or specific creator. The speaker implies that their unconquerable soul is a gift from a godly realm. It's not quite prayer but it is grateful thanks.
There is an interesting start to this second quatrain—fell clutch is delicious wording for the reader's tongue and basically means cruel grasp, the speaker stating clearly that despite being tightly held, in an awful situation, they didn't once give in or show signs of weakness.
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Note how the speaker is at first subject to the negative but then responds in a positive fashion, a repeated theme throughout the poem.
The third and fourth lines follow a similar path. There is strong assonance—use of repeated vowels:
Under the bludgeonings of chance/My head is bloody but unbowed.
The speaker here suggesting that despite being battered and wounded there is still no subservient or self-pitying bow of the head. The head is still held high.
The speaker looks into the future, taking into account all the anger and pain associated with life on earth, and particularly in places such as hospitals. The 'Horror of the shade' could be some hellish place of dark where depression lies, a menacing thought.
Again, the reader is advised that there will be no capitulation, no giving in. In fact, the speaker has been unafraid throughout the ordeal, which has lasted years, and will continue to show a brave face.
The message is underlined—the speaker has a clear intention, to survive against all the odds.
The climax to the poem contains an allusion to the Christian Bible, New Testament Matthew (7:13/14) where Jesus says 'Strait is the gate and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it'.
What is the speaker suggesting when the words It matters not how are placed in front of strait the gate?
This is the gate that leads to the heavenly life. Conversely, the second line is an inference to the depths of hell—the punishments being the sins written down during a lifetime.
- The speaker is affirming that, whether a person believes in heaven and hell or not, the plain fact is that the individual is in charge, is in control of their own fate. Henley experienced pain and distress for many years—the poem is rooted in the awful circumstances he found himself in when a boy and a young man.
More importantly, the poem's message is universal in its appeal. It says quite emphatically that, it doesn't matter who you are, believer or not, you can overcome dark times by being brave and never losing faith in your own soul's strength.
Little wonder that many famous and many unknown people over the years have used the inspiration of this poem to help them face personal trials and tribulations.
Metre and Rhyme
'Invictus' is a four-stanza rhyming poem in iambic tetrameter, that is, with four beats or stresses in each line. Occasional trochees (and spondees) occur to sharpen up this steady rhythm.
For example, the first stanza has a trochee as the opening foot in both the first and second lines. Lines three and four are pure iambic tetrameter:
Out of / the night / that cov / ers me,
Black as / the pit / from pole / to pole,
I thank / whatev / er gods / may be
For my / unconq / uera / ble soul.
The end rhymes are all full, so the rhyme scheme is abab cdcd efef ghgh. This helps keep the whole poem together.
Note the use of enjambment in the first three stanzas, where one line continues meaning into the next without punctuation.
Each quatrain deals with the speaker's personal reaction in the face of adversity. The basic idea is that no matter what life throws at you, don't let it get you down. Times may be dark, the fates against you, but you know what? The human spirit is immensely strong and capable of withstanding extreme stress and pain.
© 2017 Andrew Spacey
Centfie from Kenya on April 19, 2020:
Thorough analysis. I enjoyed the stanza by stanza analysis.