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Analyzing "Invictus": A Poem by William E. Henley

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I read and analyze poems from a psychological POV. Check out my poetry book on Amazon Store: "Piece of Mind: Everyone has an Untold Story."

Out of the night that covers me

Out of the night that covers me

Life and Death (Echoes)

I retrieved the poem "Invictus" from William Ernest Henley's A Book of Verses, published in 1888, under the subheading "Life and Death (Echoes)."

This poem appears in verse IV of the abovenamed section entitled "Life and Death (Echoes.)" In the book, the poem is dated 1875. Henley's famously known "Invictus" was originally published without a title as the habit of classical poems.

It gained the title in later versions when editors needed to identify the specific poem and catalogue it in The Oxford Book of English Verse (1900.)

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

Analysis of "Invictus"

Note that this analysis uses the third or second person pronoun "him" or "he" as the poem does not specify the speaker's gender although we know the poet was a man.

The Title

The poem defines the word "Invictus" which is derived from Latin.

Derived from the prefix in- and the Latin word vinco.

Therefore, in + vinco = invictus.

In- is a prefix that corresponds to un. Vinco means to conquer or defeat.

Therefore, the title for this poem is suitable because invictus means unconquered, unconquerable, or unsubdued (Cassell's Latin Dictionary.)

"Invictus" Structural Analysis

Title

The title of the poem is a single word whose first letter is capitalized—Invictus.

Lines

The poem has 16 lines.

Stanzas

The poem has 4 quatrain stanzas A quatrain is a stanza form which comprises of four lines.

Read 10 types of stanza forms in poetry

Rhyme scheme

"Invictus" has a regular rhyme scheme ababcdcdefefghgh made up of end-rhymes (the last syllable rhymes) when one word has more syllables than another. These are the rhyming words:

me—be

pole—soul


circumstance—chance

aloud—unbowed


tears—years

shade—unafraid


gate—fate

scroll—soul

Meter

Mostly iambic tetrameter with four stressed syllables per line.

Example: Line 1: Out of the night that covers me

Line 15: I am the master of my fate

Punctuation

All stanzas end with a full stop and give the reader time to pause and think about them separately. Other sentences are punctuated as normal sentences would be in grammar with commas appropriately placed.

For example, the use of the comma in line 12 gives a parenthesis effect without which the meaning would be different.

Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

Line 15 has a colon which gives a longer pause and introduces the next idea with the same thought. The two sentences (lines 15 and 16) are independent clauses, therefore deserving a period. However, it seems the poet wanted the reader to understand that it's a continuous idea which has not ended yet. Thus, the use of the colon serves a meaningful purpose.

What is "Invictus" about?

The persona in "Invictus" is facing difficult, painful, and unavoidable challenges in life but refuses to let them defeat him. his soul remains "unconquerable." The main issues which threaten to conquer his soul and subdue him are:

  • tough circumstances
  • unavoidable chance
  • expectations of the society/religion
  • death

"Invictus" poem is about enduring despite difficulties, never giving up in the journey of life but striving through adversities till the end. It's an inspiring poem that can uplift your spirits when going through a difficult time.

The message in "Invictus" can encourage you to:

  • keep your heart strong
  • keep your head up
  • endure difficulties
  • never give up
  • be ready for challenges in life
  • take control of your life

Related article: How to Read and understand Poetry

Scroll Image-Words have been added

Scroll Image-Words have been added

"Invictus" Stanza by Stanza Restatement

Let's paraphrase "Invictus" in prose to get a better understanding without distorting the meaning. This is a simple line-by-line analysis of sorts.

Stanza 1

From the beginning to the end I am surrounded by darkness. My soul is unconquerable beyond my own imagination it's likely from some divine source and I thank them for helping me to be so.

Stanza 2

Despite the unavoidable circumstances which I have found myself in, I have not shown the world that I am in pain. I have kept my head up even though situations beyond my control make it hard to do so.

Stanza 3

After this life of anger and pain, there is a horrifying shade waiting but still, any future challenges will find me without fear.

Stanza 4

It doesn't matter how small my chances will be or how many mistakes I will do against what's written in the scroll. I am in charge of my fate and in control of my soul.

The Tone and Mood in the Poem "Invictus"

The Tone

The tone and attitude are the same depicted by the poet's choice of words. "Invictus" has both positive and negative tones, although the dominant tone is positive.

Optimistic

The speaker in "Invictus" has a positive attitude toward his future and his life although he is aware of how difficult it can be.

My head is bloody, but unbowed. (Line 8)

And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid. (Lines 11 and 12)

Defiant

He shows a defiant attitude whereby he does not want to conform if that will mean giving up some control of his life to religion. He chooses to live his life the way he wants to even if he will be punished for it. Check the last stanza.

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.

Some critics interpret this as an arrogant, haughty or agnostic tone because the poet seems to dismiss god and elevate himself.

Uncertain

In stanza 1 the persona expresses gratitude, but the choice of words has an uncertain tone. The phrase "whatever gods may be" depicts his uncertainty about their existence. Stanza 2 has an uncertain tone because of the words like "chance" and "clutch of circumstances."

Pessimistic

The third stanza also has a pessimistic tone because he sees and expects the future years to have some menace and horror.

Reflective or contemplative

The entire poem is about a person who is contemplating life and death. It gives the idea of someone analyzing his life, choices, and society's expectations of him.

The Mood

the mood in "Invictus" is:

Resigned

The persona feels that chance and circumstances are unfair and harsh on him but there is nothing he can do to change that. All he can do is to take life as it comes but refuse to be defeated.

Confident

The persona is confident he will keep going despite the darkness and "bludgeoning." He is unconquerable, unafraid, "master" and "captain" of his life and soul respectively.

Somber

The general mood is somber given the subject of the poem is a serious reflection about life and death. As he reflects about the present moment and his future, he realizes what to expect and even though he knows it will be tough, he is "unafraid."

Aloof

The persona detaches himself from pain and from the constraints of the "scroll." Although he is pain and suffering he says,

I have not winced nor cried aloud. (line 6)

Horror of the shade

Horror of the shade

Themes in "Invictus"

Life and death

Life and death is the main theme of "Invictus." The persona is describing what goes on in his life at present and the death he expects sometime in the future. He explains about the life of "wrath and tears" in his present moment and death, "Horror of the shade," expected afterward.

Chance and fate

Although he is in the "fell clutch of circumstances" and "bludgeonings of chance" he is the "the master of his fate." Some circumstances are within his control but some are not, and the persona recognizes this.

The soul

The poet uses the word "soul" two times in the poem. Firstly, "my unconquerable soul" (line 4) where he thanks the gods for it.

The other instance is "I am the captain of my soul" whereby he asserts his control over his soul. In short, he declares his certainty over being in control of his soul, but uncertainty in gods being in control of it.

Fear

The persona does not fear death, the future, being hurt, or being punished.

My head is bloody, but unbowed. (line 8)

Finds, and shall find, me unafraid. (line 12)

Pain and suffering

The persona faces situations that he cannot get out of—"in the fell clutch of circumstance." He is in pain and suffers because of what life throws at him.

Resilience and fortitude

Despite all the pain, suffering, and the looming death, the persona is courageous enough to face "the menace of the years" and be in control of his fate. He endures and keeps his head up through the difficulties as shown by " bloody, but unbowed." He never gives up.

Spirituality and religion

The persona seems to elevate himself above "whatever gods may be." The last stanza gives the impression that he does not care about the punishments imposed on religious texts (i.e. the scroll) because he is his own master and captain. His life and soul are his responsibility. However, in the first stanza, he had thanked the gods. Therefore, in a way is the persona is considering himself as one of those gods.

Aging

The phrase "menace of the years" shows that the persona is aware of the human lifespan and how difficulties will come along the way. He emphasizes that they "shall find, him unafraid."

Is "Invictus" still Relevant in 2020?

What does the "Invictus" poem reveal about human nature? What does "Invictus" reveal about the poet's culture? Looking at the culture of the society of Henley's time and contemporary cultures, there are some similarities that make the poem relevant in today's world.

Crying aloud was offensive

Line 6 states "I have not winced nor cried aloud." Modern-day studies in psychology have found some benefits of letting emotions out in some way instead of suppressing them. The most natural way of expressing pain is crying

It looks like this old habit of shaming men who cry has persisted over centuries and across different cultures. The persona in the poem refuses to cry and praises himself about it. Aside from the fact that a poet is a man, this aspect clarifies the gender of the speaker in the poem. Naturally, women express their emotions without the fear of societal implications.

In the culture I come from, men are naturally inclined to hide their tears and cry silently without showing the world. Crying is put in the same league as sex. Although it's natural, beneficial and any normal human is capable of, it shouldn't be done in public.

People were doubting their faith

People debated about the existence of a monotheist God versus many gods. Christianity was practiced in his society given the allusion of the "strait gate" and many punishments in the scroll.

Line 3 of "Invictus" states: "I thank whatever gods may be"

The persona in the poem is grateful for his "unconquerable soul," but there's uncertainty about who to thank. The words "whatever" and "may" bring out that uncertain language. The speaker is not sure which god to thank, and he is not even sure if there is god. For some reason, his soul is unconquerable and he is grateful for that.

People engaged in war and bloodshed

Considering the terms used in the poem such as bludgeoning, bloody, unbowed, there were wars or battles during his time. The heroes were expected to carry on and refuse to bow their heads to the end even if they were hurt. Although it is unsaid in the poem, the persona is comparing himself to a soldier on a battlefield.

The modern-day is still filled with wars. Bludgeons might be artifacts now, and not major weapons in wars nowadays, but the fact remains that people engage in wars and bloodshed.

No wonder "Invictus" has been quoted by the likes of Nelson Mandela who was a freedom fighter. He found inspiration in the powerful words of this poem. Additionally, now there are films (Morgan Freeman), games, and even brand names inspired by "Invictus."

The pressure to conform to a religion

Christianity existed in his society because the poet alludes to the Bible, meaning he had an idea of the message in it. He also says how there are many repercussions of not following the guidelines written in the scroll. However, he believes he is the only one who should control his life. So, if religion does not agree with him and wants to punish him, so be it.

This phenomenon happens in today's world too whereby Christian denominations control their believers through the fear of punishment as directed by the Bible. however, some people have decided to promote self as more important than religious texts. They are true to themselves only, just as the persona in "Invictus."

The contemplation of life and death

It seems during William Ernest Henley's time some people were conquered and gave up in life because of adversities. He likely wrote the poem to inspire himself during a difficult period of his life. "Invictus" shows the uncertainty about a future life after death.

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

Humanity in general still debates about death, with no universal consensus as to what happens when we die. Is it a dark pit, or a horrifying shade?

10 Stylistic Devices in "Invictus"

1. Alliteration

A number of words with the same sounds at the beginning of the words follow one another in a line.

"the night that"

"pit from pole to pole"

"not winced nor"

"bloody, but"

"Finds, and shall find"

"master of my"

The above can also be used as examples of consonance which involves the repetition of consonant sounds within a word or lines.

2. Allusion

In "Invictus" the poet uses biblical allusion where he makes reference to Matthew chapter 7 verses 13 and 14 when he says "It matters not how strait the gate."

The verse says, "Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat/Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it." (King James Bible)

3. Assonance

There are repetitive vowel sounds in the same line throughout the poem.

"Out of the night that covers"

"Black as"

"from pole to pole"

"I thank whatever"

"For my unconquerable soul"

"Finds, and shall find, me unafraid." (Two different repetitive vowel sounds.)

4. Anaphora

The same words/phrase begins in successive lines:

"I am the" (lines 15 and 16.)

5. Assonance

There are repetitive vowel sounds in the same line throughout the poem.

"Out of the night that covers"

"Black as"

"from pole to pole"

"I thank whatever"

"For my unconquerable soul"

"Finds, and shall find, me unafraid." (Two different repetitive vowel sounds.)

6. Enjambment

A full sentence is broken up into two lines so that the second line completes the sense of the previous one. Here the persona expresses his gratitude "whatever gods may be," then the next line gives sense to the idea by explaining why he is thanking the gods.

I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul

In a normal form this would read as one full sentence like this:

I thank whatever gods may be, for my unconquerable soul.

7. Imagery

"Invictus" has similes and metaphors.

Similes show a direct comparison, for example, "Black as the pit."

Metaphors compare two things figuratively:

  • "the night that covers me" —the night is compared to something that covers him.
  • "bludgeoning of chance" —gives the image of being beaten by a bludgeon meaning a painful, burdensome situation.
  • "Horror of the shade"—the shade means death.

8. Parallelism

Lines with similar grammatical structures to emphasis an idea appears in "Invictus" in the following instances:

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Above, lines 5 and 6 are parallel to lines 7 and 8 because of their similar structure down to the position of the periods.

Also, look at the two last lines which are parallel to each other because they have the same grammatical structure.

I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

9. Personification

In stanza 1 " the night" is given a personified meaning because it "covers" the persona. In the second stanza of "Invictus," William E. Henley personifies circumstances and chance by giving these abstract concepts human qualities. Chance bludgeons the persona and circumstances clutch him.

10. Satire and irony

"Invictus" satirizes the biblical allusion of the "strait gate." The speaker says it does not matter whether the gate is narrow or not. In the original biblical verse, it is only the narrow gate that leads to life.

Also, there's satire in the next line which is a continuation of the previous. It matters not... "how charged with punishments the scroll."

"Punishments" refer to the destruction mentioned in the alluded verse " so the scroll here refers to the Bible (which during his time was still in the form of scrolls.)

Furthermore, it's ironic that in stanza 1, the persona directs his thanks to the gods but in the last stanza, he says he is the only "master" and "captain" of his life. Thus, he minimizes the influence of the gods in his life because he claims his fate and soul (which is unconquerable) are his responsibility.

Brief Summary of "Invictus"

  • Nelson Mandela and Morgan Freeman did not write Invictus but they quoted it and found inspiration from it.
  • William Ernest Henley wrote "Invictus" while in the hospital enduring serious illness.
  • "Invictus" is a formal verse with strict rhyme and meter which follow regular patterns throughout the poem.
  • "Invictus" is about being unconquerable, and unbowed and unafraid in life. Thus, it's about being determined, strong, and courageous.
  • The "Invictus" poem was written in 1875 but is still relevant in the modern world because it expresses human being experience with misery and pain, and our ability to keep going.

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What's your take?

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: Does the poet/speaker of Henley's "Invictus" say that he has always been courageous?

Answer: Yes. The speaker has always been courageous. When speaking of an "unconquerable soul," he is already made it through difficulties. Thus, it gives the idea he has always had the courage, and it's not only in the present but also in the past. Another instance in which the speaker shows he has always been courageous is when talking about the "menace of the years." He says it "finds, and shall find me unafraid." This implies he has always been courageous. The present moment "finds" him unafraid.

Additionally, the following lines refer to a time in the past and depict the courage he had then: "In the fell clutch of circumstance/I have not winced nor cried aloud"

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Comments

James on June 29, 2020:

One of my favorite inspirational poems. Thank you for your thoughtful and interesting analysis.