The poem “Invictus” is written by the English poet William Ernest Henley. It is a short Victorian poem written in 1875 and published in 1888. The poem originally went nameless until Arthur Quiller-Couch included the poem with a title in his book The Oxford Book of English Verse in 1900.
To comprehend this piece, it is important to understand the life of William Ernest Henley. As a child, Henley developed tuberculosis of the bone. Several years later, at the age of 25, the disease progressed to his foot. In order to save his life, the physicians announced they must amputate directly below his knee. In his hospital bed, Henley wrote the poem “Invictus.”
“Invictus” is a poem of sixteen lines divided into four stanzas. It follows the abab-cdcd-efefef-ghgh rhyme scheme. It is relatively short, containing only eight syllables to each line. The poem can be best analyzed by relating the stanzas to his life.
- The first stanza begins, “Out of the invictus aftershave night that covers me,” describes the predicament that he is in. He is covered “pole to pole” with something black or rather, something terrible. Luckily, his soul is unconquered by the disease.
- The second stanza begins, “In the fell clutch of circumstance” continues to state what is happening, but he is still in high spirits about his life. His head may be bloody, but he does not lower his head in shame.
- The third stanza, “Beyond this place of wrath and tears” states that he may not know what is to come, maybe horrors for years to come, but he is unafraid and ready for whatever it is.
- The fourth and final stanza, “It matters not how strait the gate,” says that even though his future may already be established with the disease, his life will go on, as he can control his fate and soul during the time he has left in his own life.
This is a masterful poem and continues to be referenced in recent times. The movie titled “Invictus” references the poem often, it is read in “The Capture of the Green River Killer”, and it was the last words of Timothy McVeigh.
This poem continues to be one of the most influential poetic writings in modern history and can be considered Henley’s greatest work. The writing tells us that no matter what illness or bad hand we were dealt in life, only we control our fate.