William Ernest Henley

(1849 - 1902 / Gloucester / England)

Invictus - Poem by William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
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Comments about Invictus by William Ernest Henley

  • (2/1/2011 1:42:00 AM)

    Mr. Merrill,
    At best you have said I exaggerate. At worst you say I am arrogant and over confident. Please allow me to explain. In retrospect I should have stated I see several points of view, including Michael B's. I had to stop working in medicine far too early in my career. The greatest joy in my life were the years spent helping people regain their sight. I cannot put in to words how rewarding that makes one feel. When I lost the privilege of helping others, it wasn't my ego that suffered. It was my emotional health. I had to stop working five years ago and have endured twenty-nine surgeries over the last twelve years. I only share this with you so you understand my perspective on this particular issue.

    Your comment also mentioned you appreciated some background on the poem. I would like to add a bit more. It may be meaningless, or it may be exactly what Henley was writing about. Knowing a fair amount about 19th century surgical techniques I believe the second line of Henley's poem may have been quite literal. In 1875 when limbs were amputated a stump was not routinely prepared as it is today, as prosthetic devices were not commonplace. In all probability, given the fact Henley suffered from Tuberculosis of the long bones of the leg, the surgeons would have removed the bone closer to his knee than the surrounding tissue. Hence once the surrounding muscle, fascia, vessels and nerves were removed, not cut as far back as the tibia and fibula, the skin closure would result in a concave recess, or pit. Post-operatively his leg would have been placed in a sling suspended by two poles to reduce swelling.

    Henley goes on to mention things that would lead me to believe he was living the life of a man learning how to walk again. Certainly falling along the way, but always picking himself up, dusting himself off and persevering.

    Michael B's point was very clear. It was simply tasteless. He was offended someone else took poetic license with Henley's work. Point well made. Could he have gotten his point across without offending several people? Certainly. He meant to offend. He said so. He wanted to get a rise out of people and he did just that. I believe everyone has a right to their own opinion, and to choose how to express their opinion. However, as you stated 'word choice is important'. This is an open forum read by people of all ages. Do you honestly feel Michael B's comments are appropriate for a ten year old to read? I am not a religious person by any stretch of the imagination. What I am saying has nothing to do with the Bible or religion. I wrote my first post for three reasons. Firstly, to tell people a little bit about the author, if they did not already know. Secondly, to say a little bit about what the poem meant to me. And lastly, to chime in, along with many others, that I felt Michael B's comments were in poor taste. If that leads you to believe me to be arrogant, so be it. I detect a bit of hubris in you by the way you sit in judgment of other people's posts by saying 'I have no problem with...', 'and that Hell Yes said what he said', 'I'm also fine with...'.

    I have explained my previous post and clarified my statements. I do appreciate the fact you found the background on the poem helpful. I hope my reply clarifies things for you. As you previously stated and I restated, on a site like this, one must choose their words carefully. If there is one word which most aptly describes me, it would be humble, not hyperbole and certainly not hubris.
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  • (1/31/2011 8:20:00 PM)

    Mr. Merrill, I would like to clarify a few things for you, as at best you have said I exaggerate, at worst I'm arrogant and over confident. Perhaps instead of saying 'I literally see all points of view', I should have said I see two important points of view. I had to give up a career in medicine for the last six years battling a disease still undiagnosed, yet causing me to endure 29 surgeries in that period of time. Prior to my illness I had the immense pleasure to help people regain their sight. That is a tremendous feeling I cannot put into words. Having that privilege taken from me early in my career was devastating. Not to my ego, but to my emotions.

    Making the transition from practitioner to patient is probably different for everyone. For myself, it led to a lot of depression until I stumbled upon Invictus. When I read Invictus for the first time it made me think about 19th century medicine and what the second line of his poem might have meant. During that period of time there were no prosthetic devices, so when one underwent an amputation the surgeon would not prepare the limb and build up the tissue as a stump like we do today. The surgeon would remove the tissue, vessels and nerves, cut the bone closer to the torso than the remaining skin, close the wound and what would remain after was a concave surface, or pit. Then, in Henley's case, the leg would be suspended in the air by a sling held by two poles to reduce swelling.

    As for the rest of the poem, it sounds as though Henley may have been describing his trials and tribulations revolving around learning to walk again. Obviously that's only my opinion.

    My issue with Michael B. is very simple. Mr. Merrill, I see his point, I disagree with the way he made his point. I must preface this by saying I am not a religious man. However, in his rather graphic portrayal of the Last Supper, I didn't find any connection between Invictus and his Penthouse-like description of what may have transpired that evening. I felt and still feel everyone is entitled to their opinion. He was lashing out at someone for exercising poetic license with Henley's work. Point well made. He meant to aggravate people. He was exercising his right to free speech, but myself and several others found it rather distasteful. But Mr. Merrill, if you honestly believe this site to be the appropriate venue for the exchange of ideas and commentary that go beyond vulgar, please keep in mind people of all ages access this site. My initial post was meant to do three things. Tell people a little bit about the poet, maintain a modicum of civility and let Michael B. know myself and others felt he could have made his point just as easily with more taste.
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  • (1/30/2011 3:44:00 PM)

    It's a powerful poem, and I'm interested in the paradox some of the comments touch on that we simultaneously are and are not 'in control' of our lives. I think it’s true. Those of you that are ill and suffering well understand the things beyond your control, yet many of you realize the importance of the spirit of the Invictus poem. “God” may approve of fist-shaking defiance.

    I find the christians/non-christian divisiveness here a bit vapid, yet I have no problem that Rhebergen rewrote the poem and that Hell Yes said what he said. I'm also fine with Michael B's way of making his point.

    Thank you Mr. Leach for some background on the poem. That’s helpful. However I think on a poetry site word choice is important, so I must object to your, “I LITERALLY see all points of view.” It certainly hyperbole. I hope it’s not hubris. You don’t seem to “see” Michael B’s.
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  • (1/29/2011 4:13:00 PM)

    Well said Keith Leach, thank you!

    My professor told us this poem is an atheists poem....I wrestled with this but let it roll off my back. However, as I currently watch the movie Invictus (having watched it before) this movie to me represents an amazingly Christ like man. Although God is not directly mentioned, if your heart is aligned with Christs' and your mind not consumed with legalism, I believe you can see LOVE as Kris Christ taught us. So having forgotten about this poem I read it and then thought of the most direct scriptures in the OT which, God gives Moses His name.....Exodus 3: 14..... I AM WHO I AM...TELL THEM 'I AM' SENT YOU...... If you read the last 2 sentences and put a comma after I am this is who my God is.....the Master of my fate and the Captain of my soul....... it breaks my heart seeing 'Christians' argue and say disgusting things to your brothers and sisters. GOD sent His Son for ALL..... please remember that ALL means ALL and as long as you Christians keep behaving as atheists Jesus' death will have been for nothing.

    On a side note.....opinions are like butt holes.....everyone's got one. How about we grow up and appreciate pure talent and LOVE the fact that we are not all the same!
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  • (1/26/2011 8:41:00 AM)

    I've read many of your criticisms of the comments left by fellow admirers of this poem, which is sad. I don't know how many of you know under what circumstances this poem was written, but I feel it germane to mention before anyone else blows a gasket over a masterful piece of literature. Henley wrote Invictus from his hospital bed in Scotland shortly after undergoing a below the knee amputation at the age of 25. He required the amputation due to his tuberculosis spreading to his foot, and then progressing up his leg. He went on to live until the age of 53.

    Like Anthony M., this poem helps give me hope. I have a disease worse than rheumatoid arthritis, and to boot it made me give up my career as a health care provider. I literally see all points of view. The beauty of art, in any form, be it literature, painting, sculpture, whatever, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So when I read a comment like the one Michael B has written, I just shake my head and say no wonder he's afraid to give his entire name on this website. He's willing to try and incite everyone reading this forum, but still such a coward that he must remain anonymous. Shame on you. No one was trying to rewrite Henley's work. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, even you. Please, just keep it civil.
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  • (1/7/2011 8:38:00 PM)

    Hi everyone. This is a brilliant poem and means a lot to me, as I am sure it does to most of the people who are on this forum.

    Some people in life are moved by words, history, stories...things that people say or have said, I am one of these people and this poem moves me for a number of reasons.

    When I originally found this poem, the part that really hit me, straight away, was the determination of the author (before even knowing his background) just the defiance is inspiring.

    Bit of background on me. I came from humble beginnings and have always been ambitious. I have a good qualification (which took me 8 years to achieve) but now have a good lifestyle. I have a beautiful and kind wife and two lovely children. About 3 years ago I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and was told that I would be on medication for the rest of my life (about 6 different tablets a day) . Anyway without getting into the detail, I refused to accept that my own body would attack me and my mind/body/soul would allow this to happen. I did a lot of soul searching and meditation…… and I have not taken any medication in over 2 yrs and feel fine.

    Anyway I have read all the other comments and would like to add my own 2 cents (very amateur – I have never attempted this before)

    1st verse: he is giving us a summary of his ordeal: he has been to a dark place but thanking whatever (gods) , that he had a strong enough personality to see him through

    2nd verse: gives us some detail, and lets us know that while he has come through this ordeal, that he is not unscathed (ie lost his leg) but still determined, not broken by any means

    3rd verse: he knows there are going to be hard times ahead (this was often the most worrying thing for me when I was first diagnosed, what happens when you get older, how will you provide for yourself etc.) perhaps he is saying he knows life is going to be difficult with one leg, BUT again, makes it clear he is up for the fight and is not afraid to face it

    4th verse: No matter how bad it gets, he is not going to look for excuses or use it as an excuse, as he is taken responsibility for his life, good or bad - which is both courageous and positive.

    This is my take (obviously biased based on my own experiences) .

    I am also on a different journey now, which is also challenging and I am going to use this poem to help me see it through.

    Finally, I would like to thank all the people who have made contributions to this forum about this poem, I have spent the last 3 hours reading all the comments and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. It is amazing how many different views there are on the same 16 lines.
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  • (12/27/2010 3:54:00 AM)

    A true sign of a masterpiece, people are still debating it's merits long afte the Poet is gone. It's one of my personal favorites. RIP Henley, you are still Mr. Invictus. (Report) Reply

  • (12/12/2010 6:11:00 AM)

    I also more than agree with Mr. Cunts.

    Religious fanatics always have to skew things to fortify their own inane views and feelings. Your version of this poem is utterly offensive and apart from offending it is simply poor poetry. Why do people like you always have to 'christify' things? Apart from the clear and underlying insecurity you feel about your faith and all its tall tales.

    Keep to the poetry and keep your versions of these classics tucked away in the bible you keep under your pillow.

    Thank you.
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  • (10/22/2010 8:29:00 AM)

    I have to agree with Mr. Yes and Mr. Cunts.

    Mr Rhebergen you offend on two counts. First: bad art. Your exercise in contrafactum is doggerel.

    Secondly, Your assumption in the line: 'I thank the God all know to be' espouses an all-too-pervasive religious dogma that is severely offensive.

    There are other ways of seeing the world, Henley's poem comes from somewhere outside yours- can't you just let him take you there for a bit? That is the essence of poetry. Unless you understand that, all the works of all the wonderful minds of history will simply wash past you and your poetry will always be wet shit.
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  • (10/18/2010 3:49:00 PM)

    The rewording of a secular (or sacred) song or poem to make an opposite point as a sacred (or secular) song or poem is a form of art known as 'Contrafactum.' I'm sorry that some have been offended that I reworded Henley's 'Invicuts; ' I did this to make a different point than the one Henley makes. My goal was neither to belittle 'Invictus' nor to ride on Henley's coat-tails but to present another viewpoint to the hardships that surround us. If you like it, great. If you don't like it just ignore me; there's no need to be rude. (Report) Reply

  • (10/13/2010 8:06:00 AM)

    I think the beauty of any form of art is that you are free to interpret it in any way that it speaks to you. No one has to see it or feel that or agree with you.

    That said, I also agree that respect should be given to someone else's art. You don't draw a mustache on the Mona Lisa because you think it makes a statement. Someone's sharing a piece of themselves by publicizing their works, and it's rather arrogant to take it upon yourself to alter it in any way.
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  • (10/11/2010 11:45:00 AM)

    It takes a hardcore realist to believe that 'Regardless of our mastery of our fate, the things that happen to us are completely beyond our control. ' I am a very religious person myself and I see your view, but I don't entirely agree with it. It seems like you suggest that we are not in control of the sad depressing things that happen to us. I would agree that stuff does happen that we cannot control, but each and every one of us has the power to control how we will react to the things that happen to us. I think that is one of the most powerful ideas represented in this poem. Throughout the poem the speaker describes how even through the most awful and depressing circumstances, he has come out conqueror (while attributing this to God, in his own unique way) . To me this poem states that yeah, life can be tough, we can be faced with all sorts of trials, but we are not slaves to these trials. What a treasure of a poem! (Report) Reply

  • (10/5/2010 8:16:00 PM)

    It's a 'God' fearing man who rewrites a poem written by a man of free will, of courage and of many things so many of us lack. Do you think your 'God' is going to rain blessings upon you for rewriting and defiling an already amazing work of art? Hell Yes, I'm with you and understand the outburst. 'Command of the English language' is what creates poetry, and certainly the thoughtlessness of those who essentially try to convert everything their eyes see should likewise be more tolerant. What you attempted to convert was just as offensive to some of us as say, turning the last supper into a giant orgy with twelve deciples going down on Ms. Magdalene's bright red carpet whilst being impaled on Mr. Christ's crucifix, so to speak. Oh wouldn't momma Mary be so proud? I suppose his father, the carpenter, would be proud that his son has taken a liking to his trade.

    Offended yet? I bet you are, so please, hold your tongues and let the author's words resonate throughout time and let it be what it is. Intolerance is what causes outbursts and responses such as mine. It stung a little while typing this; however, I gained more joy out of defending an equally as offended individual as myself.

    P.S. Don't pray for my soul... if there was a Heaven or Hell, I'd certainly have visited either one by now. Like Mr. Henley, I am the captain of my soul.
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  • (10/5/2010 10:44:00 AM)

    How did 'Hell Yes' end up on this site? He clearly has no interest in poetry. His command of the 'English' language is stupefied! If he were interested, he would be more tolerant, or at least his tongue would be more tame. I hope more can express themselves as did Peter Rhebergen. I may or may not agree with Richard, but his attempt to personalise this poem is credible. I recognise his sense to changing the meaning of the poem to one which recognises that we are not the captain of our souls, but God is. No dead person can agree against that! Those alive can think they are right up until thhry take their last breath. So keep breathing 'Hell Yes'.
    Anyway. Great poem! May we all have more courage.
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  • (10/5/2010 6:45:00 AM)

    Just another viewpoint -
    Henley represents himself as one who is impervious to pain and hardship and is determined not to even remotely consider introspection in such times of trial. His motto could be, “Stay the course, come what may.” Being “unconquerable” sounds macho, but we all know that the love of another or that of one’s God can merit a bit of conquering! When proven wrong, one may be obstinate or allow the facts to conquer our pride and prompt us to apology.

    The spirit of determination and conviction pictured here is certainly admirable when one is standing for principle. Many have died while refusing to bow to tyranny, persecution or torture, but the nobility is of greater value when the cause is greater than merely pride or personal aggrandizement.

    In verse three, Henley speaks of future “Horror” beyond the hardships of the present. Perhaps he refers only to the empty void or oblivion that some believe awaits those who die. But, the word “Horror” sounds ominous enough to describe a hell of sorts anticipated by those who defy or deny their Creator. This fatalistic attitude is not completely unlikely and is even referenced in the biblical book of Revelation where those suffering tribulation woes curse the God they know has sanctioned their judgment. To claim to be unafraid in this context sounds somewhat boastful and premature.

    In the final verse, Henley references the “strait” gate. While this could have been pulled from the words of Jesus found in the Gospels, it may simply be a reference to the author’s willingness to take the hard path. Line two seems to be an unavoidable reference to the “scroll” or book opened in the final judgment that records the sins of the condemned and (supposedly) the pronouncement of “punishments” in the Lake of Fire (again, Revelation) . Henley supposes that his judgment before God will somehow be overruled by his own human power of self-determination. One wonders if Henley understood the concept that a captain can choose to challenge the reefs with his vessel, but once upon the savage rocks, his will cannot overturn the shipwreck he has caused by his arrogance.

    We can all make choices, we cannot control the results, but we do have to live with them.
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  • (9/27/2010 7:20:00 PM)

    I'm going to have to agree with Hell Yes (Report) Reply

  • (9/27/2010 9:28:00 AM)

    Invictus is about what GOD intended for you and me. He gave us a mind in addition to the instinct. The mind is to be used to subvert the instinct so that you and I can observe, cogitate our experience and observations, act properly in relation to our understanding, take charge and move forward with confidence, not having to rely on self-anointed authorities who seek to use us rather than to empower us. (Report) Reply

  • (9/15/2010 2:41:00 PM)

    I also have read and appreciated Invictus and have always been impressed by the power of Henley's words. It's easy to see why Invictus has inspired so many people and why it remains so immensely popular today. In spite of this, I find it to be a very dark and depressing poem that stands in contradiction to reality. Regardless of our mastery of our fate, the things that happen to us are completely beyond our control.

    Wanting something similar but conveying more hope, I was moved to write the following (but then, Henley and I probably looked at things differently and he would be as saddened by my words as I am by his) :


    Out of the night that covered me,
    black as the pit of death's dark hole,
    I thank the God all know to be
    that He redeemed my conquered soul.

    Beneath fell weight of God’s just wrath,
    my heart in fearful torment fled.
    Yet Christ pursued and took my path!
    I am made whole because He bled!

    Beyond this place of wrath and tears
    loomed death and horror of the shade.
    Thank God He carried all my fears;
    and death shall find me unafraid.

    It matters not how strait His gate,
    how charged with punishments His scroll.
    God’s grace has saved me from my fate;
    He is the Saviour of my soul.
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  • (9/7/2010 12:41:00 PM)

    can picture the man writing this. Sitting in the deep of night with the gaslight low and the quiet pervading the whole world, perhaps feeling the phantom ache that many who lose a limb feel, trying to capture his resolution in the face of trials in perfect rhyme and meter. In my minds eye I see him perk up after the first verse, knowing that he has something and the pen flies across the paper as if by itself until the final 'l' and then he sits back, reads and smiles to himself.

    Well, it may not be accurate but it is the picture my mind presents.

    I like what this poem says and the fact that each line is eight syllables, alternating lines rhyming, (and I am sure that there is a technical term for that which escapes me at the moment, and this ignorance will bring sniffs and scoffs...whatever) makes me like it more.

    I'm a sucker for Quatrians. : -p Finally, my memory kicked in and I googled it! XD

    In any case, what a well crafted poem this is. Simple and thoughtful, plain and elegant, clever and still the cause of spirited debate so many years later. I just wish people could learn to disagree without invective. Really.

    I thank whatever gods may be the I AM not so judgemental.

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  • (8/11/2010 5:24:00 AM)

    Valerie: Wow. Love the passion but logging on here now, really by accident, and noticed there was response to my take on Invictus I was surprised to see the conversation. I’m surprised you would attack someone so quickly, and in a hurtful way, really for no reason. This is not a healthy sign in a person. I did appreciate that you posted another message so thank you and of course apology is accepted, we are only human after all. I am American; in fact I am a Native American living in Seattle, WA working on my Bachelors in Dental Hygiene. I respect and love education so so much and I know the people in my life are tired of listening to my preaching about the value it adds to life, so I was a little hurt by your educated comment. I am 29 years old, single Dad of a 14 year old son named Jordan, student, I am a Server at a Restaurant and my ultimate goal in life is to be a Osteopathic Doctor. I have lived in poverty pretty much my whole life and I work really hard on making a better life for my son and I. My GPA is currently at a 3.8 and I hope to raise it. There is nothing wrong with my interpretation of this wonderful poem. I wrote this as a paper for my English class and got full points! Whoo Woo! My Professor taught our class that interpretation of poetry is never wrong or right because the poem should speak to the individual. This is the reason why poetry transcends generations and speaks to everyone. I mean Henley never wrote anything saying what he was “really” meaning and feeling when he wrote this. The way you see Henley and his poem is not the same as me and that’s okay.

    I will remind you though that the poem originally had no title until Arthur Quiller-Couch put it in the Oxford Book of English Verse of 1900 and titled it himself. Invictus is Latin for unconquered but once again this was a title “someone” else gave the poem based on his “interpretation”. In addition, don’t forget that Henley had a hard life. I believe whole heartedly that he has complete confidence in him self and his destiny in life and that he will be okay in the future but just because Henley wrote “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul” does not make this a “happy” poem. It inspires perseverance because of his hardships and our ability to relate to those hardships because of our lack of knowledge of something so painful like Henley’s Tuberculoses or something painful (emotionally or physically) that really happened to us too. Saying that Henley is pessimistic does not demean the poem or the inspiration it gives to people. Now, back to Henley. He had Tuberculoses of the bone and at the age of 25 he had his leg cut off below the knee. Then in 1875 he wrote Invictus after passing the Oxford local examination. He went through a dark time that was hard on him and he made it through that dark time but in order to get the message across he is rather dark in this poem and I believe in its power to inspire but I still think he and his poem are dark. I connect to Henley well because I feel like we are two men living in different times connecting with eachother because of the pain we have both experienced in our lives through his poem Invictus. The one trait we both have is that we are both driven by the hardships in our lives and that why I like Henley so much and for that matter we are both students during the toughest times in our lives which is kind of funny.

    Jack: Thank you Sir. I appreciate your wit and your courteous nature.

    Mindy: Thank you for the support but not sure about learning anything from Valerie. I barely kept my head when I didn’t even know she was alive let alone regular communication. Sorry Valerie, you kind of deserved that one.

    Julia: Spoken like a true lady. Much appreciated and really similar to what my teacher said to me when she returned my paper with full points! ! Lol. Sorry, I was just really happy about that. You will be happy to know our English teacher has her PhD.

    Kathryn: I know exactly what you mean because I learned through my research that Victorian men were men’s men for sure and that’s why the poem is so strong, that’s part of who they were at that time culturally.

    Rev Clyburn: Thank you so much Sir. That meant a lot to me about what you said. I am a Christian and I cant help but speak from the heart. I’m glad you included my paper/this discussion in that Sundays sermon. I will defiantly keep trying to share my thoughts. Good luck to you.

    Talat Islam: Thank you for your kind words. I am happy to read that you found strength through this poem as did I. Thank you for your support. I am rather new at this if you can’t tell.

    Chris: I think you have it right on and what you said reminded me that we are all going to have to experience great pain in our lives from some source as some time so I too will remember this poem in those times.

    Gordon: What you wrote was perfection. Very similar to the true message that Henley was saying. Through your experience you could relate to Henley on a Psychological level literally putting your self in his position and not by choice at that. I’m sorry you had to experience such a painful time. I have no physical aliments myself but have had a lot of abuse as a child so I understand pain. You’re an inspiration your self and I’m glad I can say that to you and I suggest you keep telling people your story.

    Darren: I gain a lot of self confidence from this poem as well. It’s a deep seeded type of confidence from your soul. Something putting an expensive outfit cannot give.
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