Invictus and Life's Meaning
The Spirit of Two Poets
Invictus is supposedly one of the most inspirational poems ever written in the English language. Many will recognize its lines even if they do not know the poet or anything about him. Recall how the words of Timothy McVeigh haunted reporters for two days as they searched for both the poem and the poet. “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.“
At his execution, McVeigh remained silent, but he left a handwritten statement in which he quoted Invictus. Clearly, Invictus had a special meaning for him. And while some would mistakenly say that McVeigh was a right-wing Christian, his obsession with this poem would say otherwise.
But what is it about the poem that is so inspiring? Is it really an inspirational poem? Or is it the work of a victim who never finds hope in this life or in the next?
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.
Clearly, Henley believes that he is always in control. Even when hard times and disasters strike his life, he claims that he is in charge. The opening lines show that he is the victim in a dark world; yet, he is indebted to whatever gods there may be for giving him his unconquerable soul. He is ready to face and defeat whatever enemy he encounters Thus the title Invictus meaning that he is unbeaten.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
In the second quatrain, we see Henley taking a beating by life’s circumstances. His reaction is that he is suffering in silence. He continues to hold his head up, but he does not tell us how he is fighting back or even trying to gain control of the situation at hand. He is simply stating that he is taking his punishment like a man. Is this not the Stoical mindset to suffer in silence? Is there not a vast difference between Stoicism and Christianity?
Check what an English professor says:
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 quatrain, he indicates that there is something beyond the life in this place of wrath and tears. And he indicates that he doesn’t find much to look forward to since he refers to that destination of looming “Horror of the shade.” Once again, he does not tell us how he is resisting, or, if indeed, he is resisting. He simply says that he will continue to be unafraid in the “Horror” beyond this place of wrath and tears.
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.
In the fourth quatrain, we see Biblical references to the strait gate. There are various interpretations, and many reasons are given as to why Henley used this allusion to Matthew 7. But it appears that this atheist was taking a defiant shot at the Christian belief with Jesus saying in Matthew 7, “strait is the way and narrow the gate.” The second line indicates that Henley doesn’t really care how sinful his life might have been as some unseen hand records all of his misdeeds.
But in the end, he continues to tell us that he is the master of his fate and the captain of his soul. Yet, nowhere in the poem does he appear optimistic about his future. Nowhere does he exhibit any control of his destiny. Yet if he were truly the master of his fate and captain of his soul, would he not choose a life of peace and prosperity rather than a life of constant strife.
It appears to me that he is the victim rather than the master.
Henley was a very sick man throughout his life. Tuberculosis of the bone at the age of 12 necessitated that one of his legs being amputated. The surgeon who did the amputation was Joseph Lister. But the missing leg and a bushy red beard made him the perfect model for Robert Louis Stephenson’s Long John Silver.
Additional information about the life of William Earnestly Henley may be found at William Ernest Henley - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia and at other web sites.
For a spiritual comparison of Judas, McVeigh, and Henley, check the following site:
William Ernest Henley
By contrast, Dorothea Day answers Henley’s poem from the Christian perspective. Notice the difference in the attitudes of the two poets. One is being hammered by lifes circumstances while the other is assured that God s still on His throne.
Out of the night that dazzles me,
Bright as the sun from pole to pole,
I thank the God I know to be
For Christ the conqueror of my soul.
Notice the reference that she is walking in the light while Henley was walking in the dark. She is certain that God exists and that Christ has conquered her soul. There is no doubt in her mind that God is taking care of her.
Since His the sway of circumstance,
I would not wince nor cry aloud.
Under that rule which men call chance
My head with joy is humbly bowed.
She is not concerned about the circumstances as Henley was. She, like Paul, knows that troubles will come as they do in every life. But she is convinced that God will deliver her out of all of the. And she counts it joy when she is tempted. Recall how James said t6o count it joy when you fall into divers tempations because trying of your faith works patience, and patience leads to perfection. Perfection means complete.
Beyond this place of sin and tears
That life with Him! And His the aid,
Despite the menace of the years,
Keeps, and shall keep me, unafraid.
She does not rely on herself to face the battles of life. Indeed she is aware of the spiritual warfare that requires the whole armor of God. And she also know that the battle is not hers. It is the Lord’s. 1 Sam 17:47
I have no fear, though strait the gate,
He cleared from punishment the scroll.
Christ is the Master of my fate,
Christ is the Captain of my soul.
She now speaks of the peace that passes all understand. She is reconciled with the Creator of the Universe. Her sins are forgiven and the scroll is wiped clean.
Obviously it is the attitude that each person has that carries him or her through life And that attitude is formed by the spirit that one has. Now it is possible to argue that our spirits form our thought or that our thoughts form our spirits.
But if you read the life of John Wesley, you will discover that he had all of the religious training that could fill the head of any man. On the other hand, he did not possess the “peace” that Dorothea Day expresses in her poem. But that peace came later as he observed the Moravians in a storm at sea.
Clearly, such an experience changes a person from one who attends church to a Christian believer. And until that experience takes place in the individual’s life, he will judge all of those who attend church on their actions. The Christians are expected to obey the law to the letter. Wow, that’s what the Pharisees did, but they did not please Jesus.
We need to remember that Christianity is a relationship. It is not a set of rules that all Christians must obey.