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This article is about the poem. For other uses, see Invictus (disambiguation).
William Ernest Henley Vanity Fair 1892-11-26.jpg
Portrait of William Ernest Henley by Leslie Ward published in Vanity Fair 26 November 1892
Author William Ernest Henley
Country England
Language English
Genre(s) Lyric poetry
Publisher Book of Verses
Media type Print (periodical)
Publication date 1888

"Invictus" is a short Victorian poem by the English poet William Ernest Henley (1849–1903). It was written in 1875 and published in 1888 in his first volume of poems, Book of Verses, where it is the fourth poem in the section Life and Death (Echoes).[1] It originally had no title.[1] Early printings contained only the dedication To R. T. H. B.—a reference to Robert Thomas Hamilton Bruce (1846–1899), a successful Scottish flour merchant and baker who was also a literary patron.[2] The title "Invictus" (Latin for "unconquered"[3]) was added by editor Arthur Quiller-Couch when the poem was included in The Oxford Book of English Verse .[4][5]


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.



William Ernest Henley is best known by virtue of this single poem.[7]

One of Henley's legs was amputated due to complications arising from tuberculosis. Immediately after the amputation, he received news that another operation would have to be done on his other leg. However, he decided to enlist the help of a different doctor named Joseph Lister. Under Lister's care he was able to keep his other leg by undergoing intensive surgery on his remaining foot.[8] While recovering from this surgery in the infirmary, he was moved to write the words of "Invictus". This period of his life, coupled with the reality of an impoverished childhood, plays a major role in the meaning behind the poem; it is also the prime reason for this poem's existence.[9]


  • C. S. Lewis included a quotation from the last stanza in Book 5, chapter 3 of his early autobiographical work The Pilgrim's Regress (1933).
  • In the 1942 film Casablanca, Captain Renault, an official played by Claude Rains recites the last two lines of the poem when talking to Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart, referring to his power in Casablanca.
  • In the 1945 film Kings Row, Parris Mitchell, a psychiatrist played by Robert Cummings, recites the first two stanzas of "Invictus" to his friend Drake McHugh, played by Ronald Reagan, before revealing to Drake that his legs were unnecessarily amputated by a cruel doctor.
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt mentions that this is one of his favorite poems. His friend and advisor, Cordell Hull reads the entire poem aloud as a tribute to Roosevelt.
  • The fourth stanza was quoted by Lachesis to Zane in Piers Anthony's novel On a Pale Horse, the first of his Incarnations of Immortality series.
  • While incarcerated on Robben Island prison, Nelson Mandela recited the poem to other prisoners and was empowered by its message of self-mastery.[10] In the movie Invictus, Mandela gives the captain of the national South African rugby team the poem to inspire him to lead his team to a Rugby World Cup win, telling him how it inspired him in prison. In reality, as opposed to the movie, Mandela gave the captain, Francois Pienaar, a copy of the "The Man in the Arena" passage from President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt's speech Citizenship in a Republic instead.[11]
  • The American Heavy Metal band Virgin Steele take influence from the poem for their 1998 release Invictus. In the song of the same name, many of the lyrics take influence from the poem.[12][13]
  • The last stanza of the poem was used by Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) to inspire Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) in the 30 Rock episode "Everything Sunny All the Time Always".
  • The line "bloody, but unbowed" was the Daily Mirror's headline the day after the 7 July 2005 London bombings.[14] It was also quoted by Lord Peter Wimsey in the Dorothy Sayers novel Clouds of Witness, in reference to his failure to exonerate his brother of the charge of murder.[15]
  • The Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi stated, "This poem had inspired my father, Aung San, and his contemporaries during the independent struggle, as it also seemed to have inspired freedom fighters in other places at other times."[16]
  • The Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh quoted the poem in its entirety as his final (written) statement.[17][18]
  • The poem's last stanza was quoted by US President Barack Obama at the end of Obama's speech at Nelson Mandela's memorial service (10 December 2013) in South Africa and published on the front cover of the December 14, 2013 issue of The Economist.[19]
  • The second stanza of the poem is quoted by a character in the game Mass Effect 3.
  • There is a song called "Invictus" on Resolution (2012) album of the American groove metal band Lamb of God. Its lyrics are influenced by this poem.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Henley, William Ernest (1888). A book of verses. London: D. Nutt. OCLC 13897970. 
  2. ^ For example in Henley, William Ernest (1891). A book of verses (3rd ed.). New York: Scribner & Welford. OCLC 1912116. 
  3. ^ "English professor Marion Hoctor: The meaning of 'Invictus'". CNN. 2001-06-11. Retrieved 2009-06-21. 
  4. ^ Quiller-Couch, Arthur Thomas (ed.) (1902). The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250–1900 (1st (6th impression) ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 1019. OCLC 3737413. 
  5. ^ Wilson, A.N. (2001-06-11). "World of books". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2009-12-14. 
  6. ^ Poetry Foundation: I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul. URL
  7. ^ University of California Press
  8. ^ poem analysis
  9. ^ biography of William Ernest Henley
  10. ^ Daniels, Eddie (1998) There and back
  11. ^ Dominic Sandbrook (30 January 2010). "British leaders: they're not what they were". The Daily Telegraph (UK). 
  12. ^ [1]
  13. ^ [2]
  14. ^ "Bloodied but unbowed"
  15. ^ Sayers, Dorothy (1943). "Clouds of Witness". Classic Gems Publishing. p. 28. Retrieved 2014-05-15. 
  16. ^ Aung San Suu Kyi in BBC Reith Lecture, 2011-06-28
  17. ^
  18. ^ Rita Cosby (2001-06-12). "Timothy McVeigh Put to Death for Oklahoma City Bombings". FOX News. Retrieved 2008-04-15. 
  19. ^ "". Retrieved 10 January 2014. 

External links[edit]

  • Works related to Invictus at Wikisource

Quoted in full at start of Zero Six Bravo (Damien Lewis). A factual account of Special forces action in Second Gulf War published by Quercus 2013