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William Ernest Henley – Invictus

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.

Meaning
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.
The first stanza depicts the speaker at night, in reflection. The “night” may refer to actual night, or to the emotional state of the “dark night of the soul.” The poles referenced in the second line, the North and South poles, frame the entire world in a darkness, which is like that of a pit (not simply a hole: a place of incarceration; death; Hell, a frequent interpretation of the word in the 19th century; or like an Orchestra Pit). The way in which the speaker appears repeatedly, in the contorted syntax of the first stanza, draws emphasis to the emergence of the soul from darkness. Finally, in the first stanza, the speaker refers to “whatever gods may be”, which may be taken as agnosticism, paganism, or even some bewilderment on the nature, rather than the identity, of the divine (i.e. “what are gods; not who?”).
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Circumstance is personified in the second stanza, described by the adjective “fell” which means “deadly” or “cruel,” as a predator. Again, the speaker is described in a state of arrest; as in a pit. Bludgeoning has the definition of being beaten or forced down, deriving from a club like weapon often employed by the police, and its use supports the theme of captivity. “Chance,” like “circumstance,” is rendered as a powerful, oppressive force and yet the speaker refuses to bow his head or to be ruled by it.
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.
In the third stanza, the speaker refers to death as “shade,” beyond a place of wrath and tears, a description which belittles it in contrast to “wrath” and the pit imagery of the first stanza. Again here death is personified, the active subject, which finds the speaker, who is defined by his stoicism, his unalterable resolve to be unafraid of “Horror.”
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.
This last stanza concludes the speaker’s reflection, continuing the themes already established, abstracting a declaration from the reflection described in the earlier stanzas and including several references to Christian doctrine around the afterlife[citation needed]. Again, here we have references to punishment and constriction. “Strait” in the first line of the stanza means “narrow,” and the image of a gate implies captivity or impasse, but yet these two words also imply the possibility of passing; the entrance to Heaven is often described as a narrow gate. The scroll of punishments is likely a reference to the divine penalties or trials assigned to the poet by God. It could also be taken as a play on ‘straight the gait’ in reference to his health problems, which had cost him one of his legs.

 

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