15 March 2020

Henley’s Invictus

W.E. Henley’s poem Invictus was written in 1875. Originally the poem was published untitled; the name ‘Invictus’ was added by anthologist Arthur Quiller-Couch when the poem was included in The Oxford Book of English Verse.

Invictus was for some decades considered to represent the epitome of the ‘stiff upper lip’ British spirit. Although stiff-upper-lipness fell out of favour during the second half of the twentieth century, the poem has remained influential, as shown by recurring twenty-first century cultural references to it. When singer Cher recently tweeted about US presidential candidate Joe Biden that ‘your head is bloodied, but unbowed’, she was invoking a line from the poem.

Below is the poem in full.

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.

For a further discussion of the psychological significance of Henley’s poem, see my book Advice to Clever Children, p.124.