Henley Vanity FairI was involved in a discussion not long ago that reminded me of the Henley poem, Invictus. Not that I needed a lot of reminding; the poem has been near and dear to my heart since high school.

I’m not very conversant with poetry, but I’ve run into a few “pomes” over the years that have really grabbed me. (In other words, this is one place where I don’t know art, but I know what I like.)

In the past I’ve published copies of favorite poems on my personal website, and I’ve always intended to write about them in a blog article. For this poem especially, no time like the present.

Without, as they say, further ado, here’s the poem:


~~William Ernest Henley (1875)

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 or 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.

If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “My head is bloody, but unbowed,” now you know where it comes from. You may also have heard the final couplet.

The poem, obviously, is about perseverance. In fact, the title is Latin for “unconquored.” One can view it as being about facing extraordinary trials or just the trials and tribulations of life. Regardless of the degree of obstacles you face, it’s about keeping your course. It’s no coincidence, I think, that the poem ends with a suggestion of ships.

Perhaps Invictus resonates so well because the idea of the unbowed bloody head is such a  compelling theme. The Rocky movies, and the classic Die Hard, both epitomize this theme. There are many other examples. montageIt’s a fundamental plot arc: the hero defeated, the montage of the hero training or otherwise getting their shit together, the hero ultimately winning. It’s the core of just about every sports movie.

[The “Gotta Have a Montage” montage from the Team America movie: One of the funniest scenes from one of the funniest movies!]

One place I might not entirely agree with Henley is the bit about being unafraid. I think most people experience fear. The trick is how you respond to it. Being the captain of your ship means mastering your fear, navigating through it. (However, note that by no means am I speaking from a position of skill on the matter. Understanding does not always translate to doing.)

I recently re-read the science fiction classic, Dune, which has an excellent take on fear. It’s the Bene Gesserit Litany against Fear:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

Just the first two lines are worth memorizing. “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.

Sometimes fear is a matter of perspective. From childhood I was very needle-phobic (which made bees and wasps slightly problematic, but it also put one more bullet point on the Reasons to Never Inject Drugs list). As an adult, it made going to the doctor much tougher (seems like they always find a reason to stick a needle in ya).

fear of needles

Yeah, that was totally me. I got a bit better as an adult.

So one time I’m sitting in the chair waiting to get my blood drawn (and I’m quietly freaking out inside as usual — probably leaving finger marks in the steel armrests). Then it occurs to me that I’ve been skydiving lately, jumping out of airplanes, for crying out loud, and I’m afraid of a medical professional doing a routine medical procedure? And one that, when you come down to it, doesn’t hurt any worse than a stubbed toe.

It was like a switch had been thrown, and ever since it’s been no big deal. (Although, to be honest, I’m still kind of working through the Novocaine needle in the gums at the dentist. That one still makes my skin crawl.)

Getting back to Invictus, it struck such a chord with me back then because I was already well acquainted with the idea of persevering against odds. For one thing, it was in the science fiction I’d been reading since childhood. Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, their adventure stories often followed the classic hero against the odds theme.

Spice Girl

Sorry, couldn’t resist. The text is all serious, and here I am clowning around. I suppose a lot of you are wondering what the joke is. It would take too long to explain; ask your local science fiction fan.
(Bald really is beautiful!)

Even comic books explored classic themes, and certainly once I got to school and was introduced to the actual classics, I got to know the source material that drove Henley in the first place. To write such a great poem, the concepts it involves were already well-known to him.

Taking this back where it started, that discussion touched on the sad fact that many people (these days? always?) manage to reach adulthood without running into these classic concepts in any formal way. They may have seen the Rocky movies, and others, without really internalizing the themes that drive it.

I think that’s one of the tragedies of our time. The literature of the past has much to teach us. When we ignore it, we’re forced to re-learn those lessons, which is a wasteful approach.

The Death of a Liberal Arts Education, I call it! I think we’ve become too distracted by toys and other meaningless nonsense. We apologize for being “deep” or “thoughtful” or even “long-winded” (where “long-winded” means anything more than 140 characters). We often seem ashamed or embarrassed of being intelligent.

Increasingly we operate from the position of our feelings, which really makes us no better than children or beasts. We operate from the gut, like an animal, rather than from the head, like a human. (I’m not saying our emotions are bad; our higher emotions are incredible. I am saying the head needs to lead; the heart, the gut, pushes (often blindly, hence the  need to lead).)

But anyway, there you go, Invictus, one of my favorite poems ever!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

16 responses to ““Invictus”

  • elizabeth2560

    I have this poem permanently placed on my fridge, placed there two years ago during a personal crisis. At that time I took to reading it every day. Although the poem depicts courage (which I agree with you does not mean being unafraid), overcoming trials and perseverance, I feel the main theme is one of self-mastery and making our own choices.
    Great poem! Way ahead of the era of psychotherapy and much more beneficial.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Hi Elizabeth! Great poem, indeed. Totally agree with you; like I said, “it’s about keeping your course.” That final couplet does leave one to ponder the fate of a captain on a sinking ship. I think there may be a second-level irony to the poem. Bloody, unbowed; there’s nothing about actually succeeding! That third stanza seems to suggest that what lies ahead is only dying.

      Maybe not so way ahead as all that… Freud was only seven years younger than Henley. 😀 Kidding aside, absolutely! Great literature has all the seeds of self-analysis: it’s self-reflective in virtue of how it reflects humanity. We learn we’re not alone in how we think and feel, and we can learn the consequences of certain behaviors. It also acts as an ink blot, allowing us to see ourselves.

      I really do believe that lack of reading is one of the greatest fails in society today!

      • elizabeth2560

        You are so correct.
        And even when we do read, we so rarely share that with others.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        All this retirement free time allows me to follow my moods without time constraints, and I’ve noticed that I need to be in a certain, passive, mood to watch TV (let alone movies). Even laying on the couch reading seems like a less passive activity. We bring ourselves to books (and more so to poems). TV and movies supply all the sights, all the sounds, and high-def and 3D make it more and more life-like all the time. We bring almost nothing to that mix.

        Lately I’ve begun to seek objective ways the world might be changing (because many people like to claim nothing really changes). One objective difference is the global village; never have so many world-wide been so closely connected. In real-time. With video. (In fact, I believe you are on roughly the opposite side of the Earth to me!)

        I also think the sheer glut of (mostly ephemeral, trivial) content available creates a huge distraction of opiate-like proportions. This, too, I see as a game-changer in several ways. It’s mental junk-food, so a heavy diet of it is just plan bad for the mind. The vast quantity enables “the internet bubble,” the tendency to only see material that suits one’s current thinking, not material that grows one (or worse, takes one out of their comfort zone). That quantity also makes it harder for anything to stand out and be memorable. Plus it’s harder to find the wheat when there’s so damn much chaff.

        So, yeah… we need to

      • elizabeth2560

        So you distinguish between ‘real reading’ and ‘reading the glut’ (of internet reading material). I tend to agree. Nothing annoys me more than when I start out on doing something and get distracted with the internet and an hour and a half later I am still there. Sure I have read all this stuff (usually what a mess politicians are making of the world) but I have not began what I had intended to do for the day…. it’s a habit I need to break.
        Retirement? That would be a great place to be. What do you plan to do with all that free time?
        Or, are you one of these people who are busier than ever.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Definitely on the busier than ever side. As they sometimes say, “I don’t know how I found time to go to work!”

        Just the volume of material available now is a problem, but so is the ephemeral and trivial content that comprises so much of it. That’s where I draw my line; there’s material that enlarges you in some way, and there is material that merely distracts you.

        Distraction can be fun, but it’s like junk food: a constant diet is ruinous to your (mental) health.

        “Wiki walking” (a term for when you follow link after link and end up a long way from where you started) can be fun, too. It’s one way to get outside your own bubble of interests and discover something new. (Obviously, it does have to be managed or it becomes a distraction.)

        One complaint some observers have about the internet is the lack of “browsing” (an odd thing to say in a territory where a “browser” is your entry ticket). They cite how, when you look something up at the library, or in a dictionary, you may notice unrelated — but useful or interesting — material that just happens to be close physically. In the ‘web, everything is targeted, and about the only browsing you get is those “other people also liked” kind of recommendations.

        There is something to be said about setting off into the unknown without a guide. It may require a certain mindset that enjoys that sort of thing, though. 😕

    • Wyrd Smythe

      In fact, something I forgot to mention originally, the title is Latin for “unconquored” or “unbeaten.” (I’ve updated the article to mention it.)

  • dianasschwenk

    I read it once a long, long time ago – thanks for bringing it back to me. I wonder if by saying unafraid, he means not letting fear stop you from action. That’s the way I read it anyway.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Could be, could be! One of the cool things about poetry is that it is often like an ink-blot. It can be open to one’s interpretation, which gives poetry the power to help us understand ourselves. Not a bad trick for a piece only 16 lines long!

      • dianasschwenk

        So true. We somewhat interpret from the place we’re at, in a sense.
        Diana xo

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yep, or so it seems to me. I suppose that’s true of everything we perceive to some extent, but poetry is fuzzy enough that we participating in shaping it to fit ourselves. That might even be why certain pieces really get under your skin — those ones seem to connect to important parts of one’s psyche.

  • elizabeth2560

    Hello, I thought I would let you know that I included the last stanza of Invictus in a post of mine, although the post is not about the poem itself, just a reference to when the poem helped me get through a tough period.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Hello! Welcome back! I sometimes (not entirely correctly) refer to things like that as touchstones. It stretches the metaphor a bit; a touchstone is (metaphorically) some concept or idea that one could use to “vet” or clarify some other concept or idea. Something like Invictus could be (in my eyes, anyway) viewed as a touchstone in that it helps one focus on one’s core beliefs and not be distracted or dismayed by something that one encounters.

      I think I key off the word parts “touch” and “stone”. The former is about contact, the latter about stability. So therefore, ‘staying in touch with stability’ is the “sense” of the word to me.

  • Frosted Roads | Logos con carne

    […] picked up along the way and cherished. I’ve posted here about three of them: Desiderata, Invictus, and To His Coy Mistress. These poems all have foundational roles in my […]

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