This poem is frequently placed and quoted along with Kipling’s “If”, and rightfully so. When “If” lists the traits of character that are good, virtuous, larger-than-life, “Invictus” (“unconquered” in Latin) puts the ball in our court, saying that our fate is in our hands, regardless of what life brings.
The man who wrote it, William Henley, had the moral right to say that we are the masters of our fate. Sometime around the age of sixteen, he lost one leg below the knee because of tuberculosis of the bone. Following the amputation of his foot, he wrote a testament to his strength of will, his most-cited poem “Invictus” (originally titled “I. M. R. T. Hamilton Bruce”), At the age of 24, he ended up in the hospital again and spent the next three years fighting to save his other leg. His persistence paid off and he won his battle. Although not completely cured of his illness, the foot of his other leg was saved and he lived for another thirty years.
Henley’s friend, Robert Louis Stevenson was inspired by the Henley’s courage and mettle to create the larger-than-life character Long John Silver for his “Treasure Island”. Henley’s indomitable spirit was passed on to his daughter, who was the inspiration for the character of Wendy from J. M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan”. It is interesting that the complementary relationship between “If” and “Invictus” seems to reflect the relationship between their authors: Henley knew Kipling and published some of his works.
In taking responsibility for the life he lived, this truly amazing man managed to live a truly amazing life, in spite of all that happened to him. So, without any further delay here is –
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.