Friday, 4 December 2015


by Gemma Webb

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.

Feel not ye roused, my fellow Portsmuthians? Feel not ye battle-primed?

W E Henley
The poem was untitled when Henley put it in a book of his own, but when Arthur Quiller-Couch included it the 1900 edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse, he named it 'Invictus': Latin for 'unconquered'. It moved from anthology to anthology and lodged in a multitude of brains, Nelson Mandela's among them. He found it a source of consolation during his years in prison and (so Clint Eastwood’s Invictus (2009) tells us) he drew it out again to spur Matt Damon and the South African rugby teaming to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

Madiba isn't the only eminent figure of modern history to have found inspiration through the 140-year-old verses. Quoted by Martin Luther King Jr and Winston Churchill, Henley’s words have resonated with an astounding number of Nobel Prize laureates. They have also left their mark on popular culture: The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper claims he is ‘the captain of his own bladder’ after barricading himself in his room against imaginary intruders. This isn't to say to Invictus hasn't had its ugly moments. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, chose the poem as his final statement before his execution in 2001.

Literary critics have barely given the poem the time of day since its publishing in 1888, criticising its melodramatic tone and singsong versification. Even so, we insist on rediscovering it, generation after generation. W. H. Auden once said that there are many unjustly forgotten books but no unjustly remembered ones. 'Invictus' means so much to so many: for Martin Luther King Jr. it was a rallying cry, for Mandela it was an empowering message of self-mastery, for Henley himself it was his fight for survival against tuberculosis.

The message resonating throughout history is this: stop blaming circumstance, stop holding other people responsible for your destiny. You are the master of your fate/ You are the captain of your soul. 

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