“Invictus” by William Ernest Henley

I was reminded of this poem after listening to Oprah being amazing on her podcast today. The final couplet, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul” is very popular among positive thinkers, motivational speakers, and inspirational meme makers the world over.

I love a lot of things about this poem. Henley was writing in the mid-1800s, so it’s not surprising that this is written with an ABAB rhyme scheme in iambic pentameter, but I think this poem is accessible still because despite this formal structure, it’s still so raw:

“I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul.”

Let that sink in.

Also, I think it’s not falsely optimistic. Henley doesn’t end this poem saying, “I know everything will turn out okay.” He says, no matter what happens, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”

I also think that our relationship to poetry also has a lot to do with where we hear it and when it comes to us. I first heard this poem when my husband found it as the last thing his father had read before rushing to the ER with a weird pain and severe illness,  and ended up spending a month in the ICU nearly dying then recovering from necrotizing faciiatis and septic shock. Reading those words as he sat next to his father’s hospital bed gave my husband hope and resolve during that time. Because of that, this poem, whatever its quality, will always be special to me.

When Oprah mentioned “Invictus” in her talk, she was talking about how she has spent her life becoming herself. Fighting off the temptation (both internal and external) to make herself more like other people, and how this is the key to living your fullest life. I think that’s a beautiful interpretation of these words.

I hope you enjoy, “Invictus” too.

By William Ernest Henley

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.

As I keep saying, I think poetry is often better when you hear someone read it. As it turns out, “Invictus” was also a favorite poem of Nelson Mandela (so it’s not a coincidence that the movie about his life is titled Invictus). Morgan Freeman recited the poem on Charlie Rose. (I know that both Morgan Freeman and Charlie Rose have been credibly accused of sexual misconduct. I feel some personal tension in even sharing this video, but it’s a really good recitation of a poem I love. As I just mentioned the context of how we hear a poem can really affect our appreciation of it, so if hearing Morgan Freeman recite “Invictus” on Charlie Rose’s show is going to spoil a wonderful poem for you, please take a pass on this one)

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