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Invictus

                   
"Invictus"
William Ernest Henley Vanity Fair 1892-11-26.jpg
William Ernest Henley Vanity Fair 26 November 1892
Author William Ernest Henley
Country England
Language English
Genre(s) Lyric poetry
Publisher Book of Verses
Media type Print (periodical)
Publication date 1888

"Invictus" is a short Victorian poem by the English poet William Ernest Henley (1849–1903).

Contents

  Background

At the age of 12, Henley contracted tuberculosis of the bone. A few years later, the disease progressed to his foot, and physicians announced that the only way to save his life was to amputate directly below the knee. It was amputated when he was 17.[1] Stoicism inspired him to write this poem.[2] Despite his disability, he survived with one foot intact and led an active life until his death at the age of 53.

  Publication history

The poem was first published in 1875 (according to Wikisource) in a book called Book of Verses, where it was number four in several poems called Life and Death (Echoes).[3] At the beginning it bore no title.[3] Early printings contained only the dedication To R. T. H. B.—a reference to Robert Thomas Hamilton Bruce (1846–1899), a successful Scottish flour merchant and baker who was also a literary patron.[4] The title "Invictus" (Latin for "unconquered"[5]) was added by editor Arthur Quiller-Couch when the poem was included in The Oxford Book of English Verse .[6][7]

  Text

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.

  Meaning

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.

The first stanza depicts the speaker at night, in reflection. The "night" may refer to actual night, or to the emotional state of the "dark night of the soul". The poles referenced in the second line, the North and South poles, frame the entire world in a darkness, which is like that of a pit (not simply a hole: a place of incarceration; death; Hell, a frequent interpretation of the word in the 19th century; or like an Orchestra Pit). The way in which the speaker appears repeatedly, in the contorted syntax of the first stanza, draws emphasis to the emergence of the soul from darkness. Finally, in the first stanza, the speaker refers to "whatever gods may be", which may be taken as agnosticism, paganism, or even some bewilderment on the nature, rather than the identity, of the divine (i.e. "what are gods; not who?").

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Circumstance is personified in the second stanza, described by the adjective "fell" which means "deadly" or "cruel", as a predator. Again, the speaker is described in a state of arrest; as in a pit. Bludgeoning has the definition of being beaten or forced down, deriving from a club like weapon often employed by the police, and its use supports the theme of captivity. "Chance", like "circumstance", is rendered as a powerful, oppressive force and yet the speaker refuses to bow his head or to be ruled by it.

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.

In the third stanza, the speaker refers to death as "shade", beyond a place of wrath and tears, a description which belittles it in contrast to "wrath" and the pit imagery of the first stanza. Again here death is personified, the active subject, which finds the speaker, who is defined by his stoicism, his unalterable resolve to be unafraid of "Horror".

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.

This last stanza concludes the speaker's reflection, continuing the themes already established, abstracting a declaration from the reflection described in the earlier stanzas and including several references to Christian doctrine around the afterlife[citation needed]. Again, here we have references to punishment and constriction. "Strait" in the first line of the stanza means "narrow", and the image of a gate implies captivity or impasse, but yet these two words also imply the possibility of passing; the entrance to Heaven is often described as a narrow gate. The scroll of punishments is likely a reference to the divine penalties or trials assigned to the poet by God. It could also be taken as a play on 'straight the gait' in reference to his health problems, which had cost him one of his legs.

We can assume the author either does not believe or questions the Christian-normative existence of a god by the third line in his first stanza, "I thank whatever gods may be," so he would not be referencing "gate" as the gates to heaven. "Gait," however, would be a more suitable meaning given his physical condition. Although "gait" is the presumed meaning, "gate" would still be the correct spelling because at the time the poem was written it was still spelled this way from the original etymology of the word. Although it is spelled "gate," the intended meaning is what we understand today as "gait."[8]

  Importance

William Ernest Henley is known to most people by virtue of this single poem.[9]

As mentioned previously, Henley was hospitalized for tuberculosis. One of his legs was amputated in order to save his life; it was said to be very painful. Immediately after the amputation, he received news that another operation would have to be done on his other leg. However, he decided to enlist the help of a different doctor named Joseph Lister. Under Lister's care he was able to keep his other leg by undergoing intensive surgery on his remaining foot.[10] While recovering from this surgery in the infirmary, he was moved to write the words of Invictus. This period of his life, coupled with the reality of an impoverished childhood, plays a major role in the meaning behind the poem; it is also the prime reason for this poem's existence.[11]

  Influence

  • In the 1942 film Casablanca, Captain Renault, a corrupt official played by Claude Rains recites the last two lines of the poem when talking to Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart, referring to his power in Casablanca.
  • In the 1945 film Kings Row, Parris Mitchell, a psychiatrist played by Robert Cummings, recites the first two stanzas of "Invictus" to his friend Drake McHugh, played by Ronald Reagan, before revealing to Drake that his legs were unnecessarily amputated by a cruel doctor.
  • The fourth stanza was quoted by Lachesis to Zane in Piers Anthony's novel On a Pale Horse, the first of his Incarnations of Immortality series.
  • While incarcerated on Robben Island prison, Nelson Mandela recited the poem to other prisoners and was empowered by its message of self mastery.[12][13] In the movie Invictus, Mandela gives the captain of the national South African rugby team the poem to inspire him to lead his team to a Rugby World Cup win, telling him how it inspired him in prison.
  • The poem was used as the title of one of the final episodes of the 1987-1989 television series Beauty and the Beast.
  • The poem was used in a voice-over by Lucas Scott in the hit television series One Tree Hill.
  • The American Heavy Metal band Virgin Steele take influence from the poem for their 1998 release Invictus (album). In the song of the same name, many of the lyrics take influence from the poem.[14][15]
  • Canadian poet and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen recited the poem as an introduction to his own song "The Darkness", during a couple of shows on his 2010 world tour, most notably at his State Kremlin Palace show on 7 October.[16][17]
  • The poem was used by Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) to inspire Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) in the 30 Rock episode "Everything Sunny All the Time Always".
  • Novelist Jeffrey Archer quoted the poem in the first volume of his A Prison Diary series 'Hell' which recounted his time inside HMP Belmarsh.
  • The line "bloody, but unbowed" was the Daily Mirror's headline the day after the 7 July 2005 London bombings.[18]
  • The Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi stated, "This poem had inspired my father, Aung San, and his contemporaries during the independent struggle, as it also seemed to have inspired freedom fighters in other places at other times."[19]
  • The Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh chose the poem as his final (written) statement.[20][21]
  • In the 2012 game Mass Effect 3 the second stanza of the poem is cited by one of the main characters: Ashley Williams, lieutenant-commander of the Alliance
  • Tennis player Andre Agassi quoted the poem in his autobiography, Open.
  • The poem may have inspired the 2012 song of the same name by groove metal band Lamb of God.
  • In a Lost in Space episode, Dr. Smith quotes the poem in the line "each man is the master of his fate, the captain of his soul".

  References

  1. ^ Flora, Joseph (1970). William Ernest Henley. Twayne Publishers, Inc.. pp. 15. 
  2. ^ Spartans and Stoics - Stiff Upper Lip - Icons of England Retrieved February 20, 2011
  3. ^ a b Henley, William Ernest (1888). A book of verses. London: D. Nutt. OCLC 13897970. 
  4. ^ For example in Henley, William Ernest (1891). A book of verses (3rd ed.). New York: Scribner & Welford. OCLC 1912116. http://books.google.com/books?id=pxw1AAAAMAAJ. 
  5. ^ "English professor Marion Hoctor: The meaning of 'Invictus'". CNN. 2001-06-11. http://archives.cnn.com/2001/LAW/06/11/mcveigh.poem.cnna/. Retrieved 2009-06-21. 
  6. ^ Quiller-Couch, Arthur Thomas (ed.) (1902). The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250–1900 (1st (6th impression) ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 1019. OCLC 3737413. http://books.google.com/books?id=94f-EePsaT0C. 
  7. ^ Wilson, A.N. (2001-06-11). "World of books". Daily Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/4262920/World-of-books.html. Retrieved 2009-12-14. 
  8. ^ http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/gait
  9. ^ University of California Press http://www.jstor.org.www2.lib.ku.edu:2048/stable/3817033?seq=1
  10. ^ poem analysis http://sites.google.com/site/jreedeshs/home/invictus-analysis
  11. ^ biography of William Ernest Henley http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/william-ernest-henley
  12. ^ Daniels, Eddie (1998) There and back: Robben Island, 1964-1979. p.244. Mayibuye Books, 1998
  13. ^ Boehmer, Elleke (2008). "Nelson Mandela: a very short introduction". Oxford University Press. http://books.google.com/books?id=2EFHq0C1LSAC&pg=PA157&dq=Nelson+Mandela:+a+very+short+introduction+invictus#v=onepage&q&f=false. "'Invictus', taken on its own, Mandela clearly found his Victorian ethic of self-mastery" 
  14. ^ [1]
  15. ^ [2]
  16. ^ leonardcohenforum.com report
  17. ^ Cohen's Moscow recitation on YouTube
  18. ^ "Bloodied but unbowed" mirror.co.uk
  19. ^ Aung San Suu Kyi in BBC Reith Lecture, 2011-06-28
  20. ^ Catherine Quayle (2001-06-11). "Execution of an American Terrorist". Court TV. http://www.cnn.com/2007/US/law/12/17/court.archive.mcveigh5/index.html#cnnSTCText. 
  21. ^ Rita Cosby (2001-06-12). "Timothy McVeigh Put to Death for Oklahoma City Bombings". FOX News. http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,26904,00.html. Retrieved 2008-04-15. 
   
               

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