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Invictus and Life's Meaning

Updated on November 22, 2011
Seneca the Stoic Philosopher
Seneca the Stoic Philosopher | Source

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:

English professor Marion Hoctor: The meaning of 'Invictus' - CNN

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:

Timothy McVeigh's "Invictus" :

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.

My Captain

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.

The Moravians and John Wesley - Christian History & Biography -

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.


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    • Don Crowson profile image

      Don Crowson 4 years ago

      Thanks, foemeno. It is a great poem. Both poems show shat that the writer is spiritually let. One by the human spirit and the other by the Spirit of God.

    • foemeno profile image

      David Charles 4 years ago from New York

      brilliant synopsis to a divine poem, never read it before but will remember it forever because of you!

    • Don Crowson profile image

      Don Crowson 5 years ago

      Thanks for dropping by, Samual. I appreciate your opinion, but I did not say that Henley did not believe he was the master of his fate. It is obvious that he did believe he was in control of his destiny. If he did not,people would not read this poem for inspiration.

      Most people do believe they are in control except those who are slaves to something or someone. "As a man thineth in his heart, sois he." applies equally to all. My purpose was to show exactly that. Henley believed he was the master, and Day answered with her poem to show her belief.

      Both were controlled by what they thought in their hearts. Their lif's actions were controlled by what they thought. Jusat as yours and mine, we are controlled by the way we think--religiopus or theist.

      Hope this clears up your misunderstanding of the hup. Again thaks for dropping by and thanks for your comments

    • profile image

      Samuel Wells 5 years ago

      Alas I have again run into another interpretation of Invictus misappropriated for some religious means. I do not believe this poem is about Henley not doing anything to better his station.

      "Nowhere does he exhibit any control of his destiny"

      The line "I am the master of my fate" directly contradicts your idea that he does not have any control over his destiny. The last two lines of the poem are about exactly that. He says with no uncertainty at the end of his writing that he IS in control of his destiny

    • Don Crowson profile image

      Don Crowson 6 years ago

      Thanks, CloudExplorer. The kind words that I left were very sincere. I am impressed with your profile. You are a very good poet.

    • CloudExplorer profile image

      Mike Pugh 6 years ago from New York City

      Nice poems here, and careful analysis of each, welcome to hubpages & you're definitely not new to writing so enjoy all the excitement yet to come here on hub. Thanks for the kind word on my hub as well. Voted up as useful, interesting & awesome.

    • pennyofheaven profile image

      pennyofheaven 6 years ago from New Zealand

      Fascinating article. Never heard of any of the people you mention. Upon reading the two versions I find they are not that different. Whilst they have different viewpoints on the surface they both appear to be pointing to the same things. The temporal nature of life and the eternal nature of life.

      Eternal being. Unconquerable soul that is unbowed, unafraid and master of his fate and captain of his soul.

      Very thought provoking. I could have said more but that might require a hub hehe.

      Awesome article that stimulated my thoughts very well. Thanks!

    • Don Crowson profile image

      Don Crowson 6 years ago

      Thanks, WD. The Moravians did come out of the Catholic Church. It appears that churches start with a lot of real spirit and gradually die. Then the flame ignites again into a new church.

      That is the differenhce between religion and Christianity

    • Don Crowson profile image

      Don Crowson 6 years ago

      Thanks, Shea. Glad you enjoyed it.

    • WD Curry 111 profile image

      WD Curry 111 6 years ago from Space Coast

      It's a good thing Wesley wasn't in a room with me all day. There wouldn't be any Methodists.

      Am I mistaken, or did the Pope go hard after the Moravians? How far back did they go? Were there French Moravians, or am I thinking of another group that really got the Spirit?

      I am wondering, because I was just discussing "theology" and I found myself referencing the Moravians. I was challenged and had to admit . . . I can't remember much about them, but I know they got it and we don't.

      I was speaking of the sense of community and a true spirit of charity. You can't drum it up with attitude from hearing good sermons. It flows from the throne. We had a ridiculous church split a couple of years back, and my input wasn't appreciated at the time (to say the least). I haven't really found a place to belong since. I wonder if I really belonged there or if I was delusional in the first place.

      Sorry, I guess I got caught up in the moment. This teaching stirred me up. I have been collecting slag.

      This is an incredible teaching. We have to get this on the curriculum at seminary.

    • shea duane profile image

      shea duane 6 years ago from new jersey

      Day's poem and all her writings are inspirational. Thank you for this interesting hub