Henley’s 16-line poem made the nearly-obscured Henley an indelible name in English Literature. Delve more into the beauty and meaning of the poem through this short yet detailed analysis.
William Ernest Henley’s poems in the collection ‘In Hospital’ are considered among the early examples of free verse—ranking him among the fathers of this poetic form. However, he is best remembered –at times, solely remembered – for Invictus, a metrical poem in a-b rhyme scheme. The poem is recited in the movie Casablanca, contributing to its popularity in contemporary times.
Invictus is Latin for ‘unconquered’. The poem is composed of four quatrains. The sixteen lines have and alternating rhyme scheme, the end rhymes being complete rhymes except for the fourteenth and sixteenth lines which end in half rhymes. Each line of the poem has eight syllables despite their uneven length, as is shown below:
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.
The poem lacks a definite metrical pattern but it is still a lyric poem due to its briefness (having only sixteen lines) and subjectivity (expresses the author’s thoughts and feelings without and antecedent or preceding conflict which explains the persona’s attitude).
The lines are end stopped, i.e. every line conveys a single thought. This gives the poem the tone of finality and certainty which coincides with the writer’s attitude throughout the poem. This attitude is best expressed in the eleventh and thirteenth line. Henley shows deftness in prosody, being able to create consistent end rhymes without disrupting the flow of thought by breaking a syntactic unit. Note that the thought in each line is complete despite the writer’s rigid adherence to the a-b rhyme scheme.
The mood is gloomy although the persona’s attitude is optimistic. This is due to the diction or choice of words. ‘Gloomy’ words like night, cover, black, Pit, in the first quatrain set the mood for the rest of the poem. This mood is sustained throughout the poem with words like fell, under, bludgeonings, beyond, tears, looms, horror, shade, menace, strait, and scroll. The obscure sounding word bludgeoning in the seventh line and scroll in the fourteenth, which evoke and apocalyptic and therefore gloomy and menacing image, put the reader deeper into this mood. (In conventional usage, bludgeoning is a verb and cannot be suffixed with an –s.)
The tone reveals the persona’s unyielding attitude. Henley might have set the gloomy mood to magnify the obdurate tone of the persona. However, the mood is so vivid that it equals, and it almost, overshadows the tone.
Winced and cried are the only auditory words in the poem; the rest are visual (night, black, bloody, shade, etc). This implies that the persona prefers his being ‘unconquered’ to be seen and not to be felt nor heard. The persona does not want the reader to feel for him, nor to sympathize with him. He’d rather have them witness his glory in being unconquered.
The poem is laden with archetypal symbols; symbols which have a general, if not universal, connotation. Night symbolizes the hardships that the persona has gone through and being ‘out’ of it implies that he has overcome them. The image of the night is made more vivid by comparing it (through simile) with a Pit. The word is synonymous with abyss, which in turn connotes hell, and the phrase ‘pole to pole’ suggests that it is as deep as the longitudinal length of the earth. Simply put, a very very deep pit. The Pit could also be the earth/world itself, which the persona views as a place of gloom. This connotation coincides with his description of the world as a ‘place of wrath and tears’. After overcoming hardship, he thanks ‘whatever gods may be’.
The use of the words ‘whatever’ and ‘may’ in line three is sardonic, implying that his strength is innate and divine intervention would not make a difference. Thanking a god whose nature and existence is uncertain (whatever gods may be) makes it more sarcastic. Soul in the fourth line does not necessarily refer to the religious perspective of it. It could simply mean his attitude. Fell in line five is an adjective which means cruel. The persona cannot control the things that happen around him (being held or clutched by it, rather than being the one holding it). But he is able to bear it without turning away or withdrawing from it (have not winced). ‘Nor cry aloud’ implies that he did not seek help or sympathy from other people. Line 9 may imply either life or the world, pictured as a ‘place of wrath and tears’ because of hardships and sufferings. ‘Horror of the shade’ which connotes death, looms. Horror implies that death is feared by people, something that obliterates their existence. This death is present yet the persona cannot tell when and where it will come since it ‘looms’. Despite this uncertainty, the persona is not afraid—the menace of years finds me and shall find me unafraid. And whatever threat or menace of misfortune may come, he shall be brave as always, as he is at present.
The phrase ‘it matters not’ is the direct statement of the indifference implied in lines 3, 6, and 12. The phrase itself could be considered the theme of the whole poem, indifference to suffering, to go along with inconquerability of the persona’s will. The persona does not care how difficult (strait) it is to enter glory (gate), nor does he care about the consequences of his actions (how charged with punishments the scroll). The scroll is an image used repeatedly in the book of Revelation. Both gate and scroll are Biblical images which the persona is indifferent towards. This implies that divine intervention could only do so much, and it is man who decides for himself:
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
I am is repeated in the last line when the last two lines could stand in this manner—
I am the master of my fate;
The captain of my soul.
Aside from preserving the eight-syllable pattern, the repetition of ‘I am’ emphasizes the individual, the value of self. This poem is an antithesis of Calvin’s religious view of predestination and Laplace’s philosophy of determinism. This illustrates the poem’s staunchly humanistic attitude. The last line reinforces the title–it is man who makes decisions for himself. Until he decides to give up, he shall remain Invictus, Unconquered.