Even for those familiar with the poem, the name William Ernest Henley fails to ring a bell.
Henley (1849-1903) was an English poet, writer, editor and critic. He was well known in contemporary literary circle and counted Robert Louis Stevenson as one of his close friends. Along with collections of poems, he also published at least three plays co-written with Stevenson. But it was this single poem – Invictus, which made William Ernest Henley immortal.
Affected by bone tuberculosis at the age of 12,
Henley had a difficult life. He had to spend long years in hospital and one of his legs had to be amputated. Later on, when doctors suggested his second leg also should be surgically removed, he refused to do so and sought the advice of Joseph Lister. Lister, pioneer of anti-septic surgery (Listerine is named after him) treated him well enough not only to save his leg but to allow him to lead an almost normal life for nearly three decades after that. Henley’s sickly daughter Margaret, who died at the age of 5, was immortalized as Wendy in J M Barrie’s Peter Pan (she used to call fwendy-wendy). Barrie
This poem, written in hospital, was published for the first time in 1875 without any title in a book simply called Book of Verses. When it was compiled in Oxford Book of English Verses in 1902, Arthur Quiller-Couch gave it the present title. Invictus in Latin means Unconquerable.
A piece of literature becomes a favourite when you can either identify with the sentiments expressed or get inspiration from it. For most of us in a moment of utter despair, Invictus helps to steel ourselves and tells us to carry on.
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.