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A Theme of One’s Invincibility in Invictus by W. E. Henley

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It is debatable whether our fate is in our own hands or whether it is governed by a higher power. There is a widely held Christian belief that fate is in the hands of God. In “Invictus”, W. E Henley, claims that we are the masters of our own fate and celebrates triumph of the human spirit over adversities. It is an inspirational poem, which is imbued with Stoic wisdom. In his poem, Henley, is invincible because, of his self-conviction and refusal to despair despite, his hardships. We are the masters of our own fate, is exemplified by the poet. He embodies fortitude in the face of adversity with utmost grace and adroitness. The poem reflects his resilience amidst darkness. He is undoubtedly heroic in his defiance of death. The poem serves as a source of inspiration for millions of people around the globe as, it teaches that if you are true to your convictions, then nothing can defeat you. You are endowed with an invincible spirit. If you are self-reliant then, you can bravely face any misfortune, without resorting to religious recourse. Your destiny is defined by you.

Though, the poet may be physically crippled by circumstances, his spirit is indomitable. Even after suffering from TB, which was an incurable disease in those days, the poet is hopeful and fearless. Henley suffered from Skeletal Tuberculosis, his left knee was amputated, and his other leg also got affected. He underwent several surgeries to restore his legs. During his hospital stay in 1875, he expressed his thoughts in this enduring poem. The Latin word “Invictus” means unconquerable in English. The poet has used powerful imagery which invoke empathetic emotions in the readers. The poem is written in the “rhyme scheme of abab, cdcd, efef, ghgh”. It is composed of “four stanzas”. Each stanza is composed of “four lines” (Quatrain). The poem is composed of “sixteen lines”. Though, simple in its structure, it contains a powerful message by an indomitable spirit. The powerful message of invincibility of spirit transcends its simplified structure.

The glorification of self as an invincible spirit and the subordination of ‘gods’, upholds Henley’s autonomy. This is evident through perfunctory reference to God as, “I thank whatever gods may be / For my unconquerable soul.” The many “gods” starting with a lowercase ‘g’ tones down the emphasis on gods. The uppercase ‘I’ in “I am” represents the self as invincible spirit, taking charge of one’s fate. The ‘gods’ here, allude to pantheistic belief, that the higher power is within me, and I am that invincible spirit. In this inspirational poem, the poet has poured out his heart on paper, which reflects his valiant spirit. After reading this poem, we are awed by the poet’s stance, and we are filled with a feeling of composure as epitomized by the poet. We have admiration for the poet’s strength of spirit, when he expresses, that he is grateful for his undefeated soul, although, he is unwell. The poet is ready to embrace uncertainty, armed with his resolute faith in self. He is ready to face the unknown stoically, which reflects his tolerance for ambiguity. He is not afraid of death. He is fearless.

The beauty of this poem is that it inspires everyone. It speaks to all, no matter where they are from. The meaning of the poem can be interpreted in many ways, from different perspectives. It is strewn with meaningful metaphors and imagery which awaken readers own conviction and self-belief. The poet expresses his anguish and thoughts, which resonate with all who are sick and trying to recover from a serious illness. In his article, “I Am the Master of My Fate”, P William, emphasizes that Nelson Mandela was greatly inspired by this poem. “Undefeated by racism, imprisonment, TB, and bitterness, Mandela persevered as the master of his fate. His lasting gift was his power of forgiveness – a gift we remember in his inimitable smile.” The poem also resonates with people, who are trying to fulfill a mission. The poem serves as a source of inspiration, for the players taking part in the “Invictus Games”. The Invictus Games are international sport events in which injured, sick or wounded army veterans participate. The poem has been recited by Louis Smith (athlete), Iwan Thomas (athlete), Daniel Craig (actor), Tom Hardy (actor) in the promotional video to inspire everyone. The poem gives a message of hope and resilience, that no matter what circumstances we are in, our destiny is in our own hands. We are indeed masters of our own fate. The poem also speaks to students, who are preparing for an exam, as it inspires and gives a positive message of victory over our fears.

The poem not only depicts Henley’s physical condition but, also his mental state and how he overcomes those challenges by self-conviction. The poem’s opening is undeniably grim, but, eventually the poet’s triumphant spirit outshines the surrounding darkness (grimness). The poem begins with “the night”. The imagery of night as depicted in the poem, paints a gloomy picture. The ‘night’ refers to the anguish and sufferings, which the poet is undergoing due to complications of his TB treatment, painful surgeries and his physically debilitating condition in the hospital. “Beyond the place of wrath and tears / looms but a shadow of shade.” The “black night” refers to depression, he was experiencing due to his plight. The poem is not only about confronting hardships like, physical illness/disability but, also about fighting depression and pessimism. For people, who are undergoing depression during a challenging phase, “Invictus” gives a message of hope, courage and determination by taking control of one’s destiny. The poet, by personifying “circumstance” and “chance”, has described the gory nature of his illness. The circumstances have clutched him and “the chance” has bludgeoned him. His head is bleeding, but not bowed. He has kept up his spirit, he is undefeated and hasn’t given up. The poem emboldens everyone by instilling faith in themselves when it expresses, “I am unperturbed, even when chance has bludgeoned me. I am unbowed. My spirit is unconquerable”, a reflection of Stoicism which professes being resilient and composed even in misery.

There is secular philosophy, as the Victorian era was witnessing evolution of Darwinian thoughts and challenging Creationism. The poet emphasizes his agency and autonomy over destiny rather God, this reflects his contemporary, Nietzsche’s philosophy, who glorified man above God. The Stoicism echoes Seneca’s wisdom. The Victorian age was disenchanted with Christian austerity and charade. The reliance on self rather religion, is the hallmark of this poem. The poem has used religious imagery but, the poem is not religious. There are allusions to Biblical symbols, “It matters not how strait the gate / how charged with punishments the scroll”. The “gate” refers to entrance towards heaven or hell, a Christian belief of occupancy in heaven/hell after death. From the poet’s expression, the word “scroll” in scriptural sense is punitive towards him, regardless of this, the poet proclaims his victory. The poet is not afraid of death anymore. He is not worried about heaven or hell and declares himself the master of his destiny.

“I am in possession of my destiny.” When the poet gloriously declares that he is the master of his fate, and he is the captain of his soul. “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul.”  the oft-quoted lines are the very essence of the poem. It reflects his resilience amidst darkness. His proclamation of victory signals that not God but, he himself is the designer of his own destiny. No matter how physically devastated he may be due to his illness, the poet is mentally strong. He still has not lost hope. The poem enthuses everyone with “I am invincible.”

Works Cited

  • Arafat, Faisal S. M. “Reflection of William Ernest Henley’s Own Life through the Poem Invictus”, International Journal English Literature and Social Sciences, Vol-4, Issue-5, Sep – Oct 2019, DOI 10.22161/ijels.45.36 . Accessed 19 January 2020
  • “Daniel Craig, Tom Hardy & recite ‘Invictus’ to support the Invictus Games”. YouTube, User: Invictus Games Foundation, 29 May 2014, . Accessed 22 January 2020
  • Henley E. W, “Invictus”, Dr. Lugo’s GoogleDrive . Accessed 19 January 2020
  • “Nelson Mandela’s favorite poem ‘Invictus’ read by Morgan Freeman”. YouTube, User: Somali, 5 December 2015, . Accessed 19 January 2020
  • P William, “I Am the Master of My Fate”, Emerging Infectious Diseases. Volume 20, No. 3 March 2014. Accessed 07 February 2020

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