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A Linguistic Analysis of Invictus by Turner

About the Author

Hello! I’m Turner, a rising sophomore. In this analysis, we are analyzing the word choice within Invictus, by William Ernest Henley (But not named by William Ernest Henley).

A Linguistic Analysis of Invictus

by Turner

Invictus was a poem written in 1875 by William Ernest Henley. William Ernest Henley was born in 1849 and died in 1903. At the age of twelve, his left leg was amputated. Later, due to a resurgence of his Tuberculosis, he spent three years in a hospital contesting a diagnosis that another leg amputation would be required. During this time, he began writing poems.. He published his first book of poems in 1888, and continued writing until his death.

The first stanza attempts to introduce the central themes of the poem. The first two lines of Invictus read, “Out of the night that covers me, Black as the pit from pole to pole.” These create the imagery of escaping a calamity, crawling out of a pit to escape the darkness. In the third line, the author thanks “whatever gods may be”. The phrase “whatever gods” notably differs from the ideas of Christianity, as Christianity is monotheistic. The writing of this poem happens to align with the decline of the Church in Europe, which may have led to such a sentiment. The fourth line of the stanza finishes the previous line with, “For my unconquerable soul.” This line establishes a central theme throughout the rest of the poem: the author's perseverance. In addition, ‘unconquerable’ is often associated with war. In such a context, this could imply that the author wars against calamities that befall them.

The second stanza grants further insights upon this theme by providing more substance to the theme. In the first line, the author states that he was “in the fell clutch of circumstance”. Circumstance often is associated with chance and luck, and he here implies that such factors have negatively impacted him. This parallels his life, where he contracted tuberculosis at no fault of his own. Yet in line 2, he states that “I have not winced nor cried aloud.” This line contrasts the first line by implying that even though he is being affected by factors outside of his control, he has endured without complaint. He then continues, “Under the bludgeonings of chance.” This line more directly identifies that chance has been against him by using bludgeoning, an incredibly violent word. The final line states, “My head is bloody, but unbowed.” Bowing is often used to denote subservience to another power. Within the given context, this line states that although the author has been challenged, they refuse to be subservient to their circumstances.

The third stanza, similarly to stanza two, provides further insights into Henley’s thoughts. The author opens with the line, “Beyond this place of wrath and tears”. ‘This place of wrath and tears’ likely refers to life. Beyond such a place would be the afterlife. The second line reads, “Looms but the Horror of the shade.” This line likely alludes to death, showing that the author understands the horror of death. Line three states, “And yet the menace of the years”. The menace of the years is vague, yet considering the previous context it could also refer to death. The final line states, “Finds and shall find me unafraid.” This line implies that the writer is unafraid of death, contrasting the passive tone found within lines three and four.

The poem culminates in the final stanza, which provides centralized insights upon Henley’s intent. The author opens by stating, “It matters not how strait the gate”. This line references the Gospel of Matthew, which states, “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction.” ‘The gate’ represents life. By stating that it does not matter how strait the gate is, the author states that they are willing to undergo any difficulty. The second line continues, “How charged with punishments the scroll”. The scroll likely alludes to fate, as writing is often considered difficult to change. The author in this case would be challenging his own fate. This once again parallels his life story, where he challenged the diagnosis that he would need to amputate his second leg. The final lines are likely the most famous. “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” The third line expresses the sentiment of self empowerment present throughout the rest of the poem. The author states that they are in control of their destiny. The fourth line invokes the idea of a Captain. Captains are often a title of command. By stating that they are the captain of their soul, the author is stating that they are ultimately in control of their life.

Invictus was first published without a name as part of Henley’s first book of poems. Even so, Invictus has left its mark on history. During a briefing of the situation of WWII in 1941, Churchill ended his speech with the words, "We still are master of our fate. We still are captain of our souls." Similarly, throughout his life, Nelson Mandela stated that he was empowered by its messages. Invictus (2009), a direct reference to Henley’s poem, focuses on Nelson Mandela and themes of self-empowerment. Yet this poem has also affected ordinary people. People who are not famous enough to be known by millions have been changed by Invictus. From humble beginnings, Invictus is now one of the most well-known poems in the world.


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.

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