Sunday, January 10, 2010


I recently came across the poem Invictus (Latin for "unconquered") by the English poet William Ernest Henley. It is a simple, but powerful poem where the poet expresses his "never say die" attitude. This is also the poem that Nelson Mandela held onto during his incarceration on Robben Island. The movie Invictus also derives its name from this poem.

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 fate
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.

In the very first stanza of the poem, it is clear that the poet is not one of those people who blame fate or the Almighty for their misfortunes. He employs "Black night" to metaphorically indicate hardships of life. (Note the use of both metaphor and simile in the first two lines). It appears as though the poet is an atheist because of his usage of "whatever gods may be".

Life, for some like the poet, may not be a bed of roses. The poet was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the bone at the tender age of 12. A few years later his leg had to be amputated in order to save his life, but despite that he led an active life. He wrote this poem from a hospital bed (possibly after the amputation). They say life is as you react; the poet clearly shows his strong, unconquerable spirit in the second stanza.

In addition to the trials and tribulations of the present there is always the fear of the unknown (Horror of the shade), possibly uncertainty about the future. The poet says he is not afraid and ready to face whatever lays ahead of him.

The poem ends strongly with the poet proclaiming that he is the master of his destiny regardless of the difficulties that may be in store for him.

This is my interpretation of the poem. Your interpretations are welcome too!