Invictus (annotated)


Out of the night [the poet’s difficulties] that covers me, 

Black as the Pit [Hell] from pole to pole,  

I thank whatever gods may be [exist]         

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell [cruel, fierce] clutch [grasp, hold] of circumstance   

I have not winced [pulled back from the pain] nor cried aloud. 

Under the bludgeoning [beating with a blunt instrument] of chance [luck, accident]    

My head is bloody, but unbowed [not bowed, not hanging down in defeat]

Beyond this place [earth, human existence] of wrath [anger] and tears   

Looms [is indistinctly visible] but [except, only] the Horror of the shade [death],

And yet the menace [unknown bad things to come] of the years         

Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait [narrow] the gate, *   

How charged [filled] with punishments the scroll

I am the master [ship’s captain] of my fate: 

I am the captain of my soul.

*This is a reference to Matthew 7:14: “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”

scroll: This is a reference to the Last Judgement. Artistic depictions show an angel with a scroll on which are written the good and evil deeds of the people to be judged. The Biblical source is Matthew 25 which ends with the line:


“And these [the evil-doers] shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” Matthew 25:46 (KJV).

In the last two lines Henley sees himself in the role of a ship’s captain, sailing through the treacherous waters of human existence.

William Ernet Henley (1849-1903) English poet, editor, and critic

Henley experienced numerous unfortunate circumstances in his life. His father died when Henley was 19. Henley’s daughter died at the age of five years. Henley himself suffered from tuberculosis of the bone. While he was still in his teens, his left leg was amputated below the knee.  When he was 24, his right foot had to be amputated as well.  It was at this time that he wrote Invictus.