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.
– William Ernest Henley, 1875
One of the most popular poems in the West today (particularly the last two lines), William Ernest Henley’s Invictus is a kind of reverie and praise of the rugged individual who refuses to let the circumstances of life crush them.
From the age of 12 Henley had tuberculosis of the bone and suffered tremendously, eventually resulting in his left leg being amputated when he was 17. He spent the remainder of his life in and out of hospitals, under the constant threat of having his other leg amputated, and eventually died from the illness at the age of 53. As an avowed atheist the only solace and strength Henley could look to for comfort amidst a life of suffering was within himself. At the age of 27, while Henley was laid up in a hospital, he wrote Invictus, latin for “unconquerable.” It has become well known, along with Rudyard Kipling’s If, as the quintessential picture of the stoic manly virtue of Victorian England.
The poem’s influence has been considerable. Nelson Mandela famously recited this poem while in prison, looking to it as a beacon of hope. It was also the last words of Timothy McVeigh before he received a lethal injection after killing 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing. For good and ill, the “unconquerable soul” of Henley has resonated with many.
Better to Reign in Hell
Each of the four verses strikes a note of defiance. The only nod Henley gives to a power above him is a reference to “whatever gods may be” who give to him his “unconquerable soul.” The rest of the poem positions himself in active resistance not only to the circumstances of his life, but to any kind of higher power over him, whether that be chance (verse 2), death (verse 3), or the Christian God (verse 4). In each verse he is beset by darkness, bludgeoning, horrors, and punishments, yet stands unafraid and undaunted: Invictus.
The last verse in particular is a scandalous slap in the face of Christianity. Henley rejected belief in God, but even if the Christian God exists it matters not. The “straight gate” is an allusion to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7, “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it,” (Matt 7:13-14, KJV). To reject the narrow path of Christ is to plunge yourself into destruction and judgment. But Henley, so to speak, cries out: bring it on. The “scroll” charged with punishments is likely a reference to the book of judgment in Revelation 20:11-15. Henley is not intimidated by threat of punishment or judgment, for he is the captain and master of his fate, not an Eternal Judge. In other words, he would rather take the punishments of the scroll and maintain his autonomy and control, then become submissive and compliant. It reminds one of Satan’s confession in Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.”
While there is something commendable about a kind of courage that is willing to face down overwhelming odds, the kind of independence and autonomy Henley portrays in Invictus is imaginary, dangerous, and exhausting.
It is imaginary because no one is able to defy the circumstances of life. We do have some power to choose how we respond to the events in life, but no one is the master of their fate. We have no control over what happens to us, what other people will do, or the situations which providence finds us. I did not choose the family I was born into, when I was born, my genetic makeup, or what is happening in the world around me. Further, while Henley purports to say that it “matters not how strait the gate / how charged with punishments the scroll” at judgment day, it does matter. Henley’s hubris is staggering. At the last day he will not be defiantly standing against the God of the universe saying: I don’t care, bring it on. No, he will be on his face confessing that Christ is the Master and Captain (Phil 2:10-11) before begging the mountains to fall upon him (Rev 6:15-17).
It is dangerous because it removes any authority from outside or above the individual and places the authority within, I am the captain of my soul. Some people look within and find virtue (Mandela), and others find ugliness (McVeigh). But if the heavens above and circumstance around us cannot bow our heads, then what will? When McVeigh killed 168 people, he saw himself as the “master of his fate” and “captain of his soul”–he saw himself as the hero, defiant, and undaunted. And, since the worldview of Invictus loads the individual with authority, who are we to say otherwise? That is dangerous.
Lastly, it is exhausting because it forces you to become your own savior. You cannot look outside of yourself for strength or help. It is you against the world, against the heavens, against death. And that is a heavy burden. What if death approaches and you do not find yourself fitting the 27 year-old’s description of being “unafraid”? Too bad. You have no one and nothing else to help you.
Dorothy Day, the 20th century Catholic worker, wrote a poem in response to this worldview fittingly titled Conquered
Out of the light that dazzles me,
Bright as the sun from pole to pole,
I thank the God I know to be,
For Christ – the Conqueror of my soul.
Since His the sway of circumstance,
I would not wince nor cry aloud.
Under the rule which men call chance,
My head, with joy, is humbly bowed.
Beyond this place of sin and tears,
That Life with Him and His the Aid,
That, spite the menace of the years,
Keeps, and will keep me unafraid.
I have no fear though straight the gate:
He cleared from punishment the scroll.
Christ is the Master of my fate!
Christ is the Captain of my soul!