View Full Version : Rate A Poem: W E Henley, Invictus

07-11-2015, 03:27 AM
Very few of W. E. Henley's poems are public domain, which makes discussion of his body of work slightly difficult in the context of this forum. That said, the Victorian poet, critic and editor remains one of the most quoted poets of his day. Primarily in military circles, and regularly without actual prior knowledge of the origin, "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul" is frequently used as the keystone of inspiration and commitment. Growing up as a forces brat during the 'troubles' and my father's posting to the Falklands in the 80s, and now my current occupational links to the British Forces, I have known the one poem I can share for many years--and recognise its staying power: the poem often referred to as 'the poem that inspired a nation'.

Invictus (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/182194)
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

More on the poet (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/william-ernest-henley)

07-11-2015, 03:37 AM
Cool thread, Kie.

It's been fashionable for a long time, at least in places I've frequented, to dismiss this poem as a purple sentimental blurt with no real virtue.

However, I happen to like it, and will confess here that when I was about 16 I got inspired by the whole idea of affirmations, repeating uplifting statements to oneself, and in that enthusiasm I memorized this poem and would recite it (not where anyone could hear me) as a kind of self-strengthening medicine. My "intellectual" school friends would have hooted with laughter if they had known. :greenie

I can't tell you whether it had a beneficial effect or not, but I still appreciate its unapologetic bracing force and the martial music of its measures. It does lack subtlety but so do many fine things in the world.

07-11-2015, 03:44 AM
Let's not forget that Henley was an amputee--in other sense a freak in his time, told he was different from pre-pubescence , an outsider with less or nothing to offer society; survivor of a life threatening disease among several other hardships and griefs--despite such, a successful man and truly master of his fate. He's not demanding sympathy or wallowing in self pity, he's making a statement. One of strength, unapologetic, and forward driven; the poem is a grand 'fuck you' to the attitudes of the day as I see it.

There is a common criticism as you say, that this is less poem, more self indulgence, but sometimes, we can make use of that. :)

07-11-2015, 04:12 AM
I also love this one but admit that I first read it when I was in middle school, not a discerning reader. Today I might say nice rhyme scheme, a little over the top and still, when I read those lines, the raw emotion that flooded over me all those years ago, and later Henley's, story, grabbed my heart and even now, some fifty years later, will not let it go. I voted inspirational, mainly because I cannot remove myself from the impact it had on me as a child. In my mind I classify it as one of the "Music Maker Poems" another poem that spoke deeply to me as a kid. --s6

07-15-2015, 04:40 AM
My father introduced me to this poem, so I have to declare a bias. He learned it in school, and he can still recite it from memory.

It would be a shame to discount the power and beauty of this poem because the syntax and structure are out of fashion. I think Henley created richness and depth of image and feeling in a very short space. That's one of the marvels of poetry to me: the overall effect of word nuances - their feel, sound and rhythm - beyond the meaning.

The poem is brief and direct -- I think one would have to be a hard marker to call it purple. Yet on reflection, it carries loads: each stanza sets forth exactly the context it requires.

The final two lines, I believe, have passed into cliché because they convey their message so completely and plainly. Also, "bloody but unbowed" - into cliché, and deservedly so. There's really no escape from them once they've been read.

I'd had no idea of Henley's background - thank you, Kie.

To convey this much meaning or image with so few words, so carefully arranged, is a marvelous feat. I think this poem will outlast its criticisms.

07-16-2015, 01:51 AM
I had to memorize this in middle school, a difficult time for me (what middle schooler doesn't think that?) I took "I am the master of my fate" to heart choosing a life no one wanted me to have. So there! I also remember it was the first time I encountered "strait" and thought it a cool word. Of course, these memories taint my critical abilities. But if I came fresh upon it now, I doubt I'd like it...the third stanza in particular seems off to me.

07-16-2015, 02:00 AM
I remembered that poem, and when I wrote my book, I put him in there, to wit:

What’s going on? I know I’m not getting enough sleep but that doesn’t explain why I’m sitting here, poised to start a conversation with William Ernest Henley, dead since 1900 or something.

Do I really want to start a conversation with a dead guy?

And later. . .

It wasn’t inevitable. I had a choice, and I made my choice. I am the master of my butthole. I am the captain—

So yeah, I am much beholden to Mr. Henley.