Analysis of William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus”

William Ernest Henley young.jpgWilliam Ernest Henley (1849 – 1903)

William Ernest Henley had a difficult life. His family was poor, his father died when he was young, and at age twelve tuberculosis necessitated the amputation of one of his legs below the knee. His other foot was later saved only after radical surgery. Henley was in and out of the hospital from the ages of eighteen to twenty-six, including a continuous three-year span from 1873-1875. He wrote “Invictus,” which is Latin for unconquered while recovering in the infirmary. It is one of the most memorable poems in the English language.


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.

The stirring finale of this poem is as fresh as the day it was written, still acting as a buttress against encroaching determinism.1 I have studied the philosophical issue of freedom enough to know that a sustained defense of free will is nearly impossible, but neither can its reverse be definitely established.

So we might as well believe in freedom. For if we have no choice but to believe in the freedom of will, then by necessity we will believe in it. And if we have a choice to believe in freedom of will, then by definition we are free. There is little to lose and much to gain by acting as if we are free as if we are masters of our fate and captains of our souls.2


  1. I first encountered this poem in a freshman high school English class.
  2. Note that this is a vast oversimplification. And so there is obviously a lot more to say about all this. I’m simply proposing that there are some advantages to believing in freedom of the will. There are also many disadvantages since we typically hold people responsible for things that are beyond their control. As I said there is so much more to say about all this.
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