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by William Ernest Henley
Portrait of William Ernest Henley by Leslie Ward, published in Vanity Fair, 26 November 1892.
CountryUnited Kingdom

"Invictus" is a short poem by the Victorian era British poet William Ernest Henley (1849–1903). Henley wrote it in 1875, and in 1888 he published it in his first volume of poems, Book of Verses, in the section titled "Life and Death (Echoes)".


William Ernest Henley

When Henley was 16 years old, his left leg required amputation owing to complications arising from tuberculosis.[1]: 16  In the early 1870s, after seeking treatment for problems with his other leg at Margate, he was told that it would require a similar procedure.[2]

He instead chose to travel to Edinburgh in August 1873 to enlist the services of the distinguished English surgeon Joseph Lister,[1]: 17–18 [3] who was able to save Henley's remaining leg after multiple surgical interventions on the foot.[4] While recovering in the infirmary, he was moved to write the verses that became the poem "Invictus". A memorable evocation of Victorian stoicism—the "stiff upper lip" of self-discipline and fortitude in adversity, which popular culture rendered into a British character trait—"Invictus" remains a cultural touchstone.[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.

A reading of the poem "Invictus"



Latin for "unconquered",[6] the poem "Invictus" is a deeply descriptive and motivational work filled with vivid imagery. With four stanzas and sixteen lines, each containing eight syllables, the poem has a rather uncomplicated structure.[7] The poem is most known for its themes of willpower and strength in the face of adversity, much of which is drawn from the horrible fate assigned to many amputees of the day—gangrene and death.[8]

Each stanza takes considerable note of William Ernest Henley's perseverance and fearlessness throughout his early life and over twenty months under Lister's care.[7] In the second stanza, Henley refers to the strength that helped him through a childhood defined by his struggles with tuberculosis when he says "I have not winced nor cried aloud."[2][9] In the fourth stanza, Henley alludes to the fact that each individual's destiny is under the jurisdiction of themselves, not at the mercy of the obstacles they face, nor other worldly powers.

Those who have taken time to analyze "Invictus" have also taken notice of religious themes, or the lack thereof, that exist in this piece. There is agreement that much of the dark descriptions in the opening lines make reference to Hell. Later, the fourth stanza of the poem alludes to a phrase from the King James Bible, which says, at Matthew 7:14, "Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it."

Despite Henley's evocative tellings of perseverance and determination, worry was on his mind; in a letter to a close companion, William Ernest Henley later confided, "I am afeard my marching days are over"[7] when asked about the condition of his leg.

Publication history


The second edition of Henley's Book of Verses added a dedication "To R. T. H. B."—a reference to Robert Thomas Hamilton Bruce, a successful Scottish flour merchant, baker, and literary patron.[10] The 1900 edition of Henley's Poems, published after Bruce's death, altered the dedication to "I. M. R. T. Hamilton Bruce (1846–1899)," whereby I. M. stands for "in memoriam."[11]

Arthur Quiller-Couch, the editor who came up with the title, "Invictus"



The poem was published in 1888 in his first volume of poems, Book of Verses, with no title,[12] but would later be reprinted in 19th-century newspapers under various titles, including:

  • "Myself"[13]
  • "Song of a Strong Soul"[14]
  • "My Soul"[15]
  • "Clear Grit"[16]
  • "Master of His Fate"[17]
  • "Captain of My Soul"[18]
  • "Urbs Fortitudinis"[19]
  • "De Profundis"[20]

The established title "Invictus" was added by editor Arthur Quiller-Couch when the poem was included in the Oxford Book of English Verse (1900).[21][22]

Notable uses





  • In Oscar Wilde's De Profundis letter in 1897, he reminisces that "I was no longer the Captain of my soul."
  • In Book Five, chapter III ("The Self-Sufficiency of Vertue") of his early autobiographical work, The Pilgrim's Regress (1933), C. S. Lewis included a quote from the last two lines (paraphrased by the character Vertue): "I cannot put myself under anyone's orders. I must be the captain of my soul and the master of my fate. But thank you for your offer."
  • In W. E. B. Du Bois' The Quest of the Silver Fleece, the last stanza is sent anonymously from one character to another to encourage him to stay strong in the face of tests to his manhood.
  • The phrase "bloody, but unbowed" was quoted by Lord Peter Wimsey in Dorothy Sayers' novel Clouds of Witness (1926), referring to his failure to exonerate his brother of the charge of murder.[37]
  • The last line in the poem is used as the title for Gwen Harwood's 1960 poem "I am the Captain of My Soul", which presents a different view of the titular captain.


  • In Casablanca (1942), Captain Renault (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. While delivering the last line, he is called away by an aide to Gestapo officer Major Strasser.[38]
  • In Kings Row (1942), psychiatrist Parris Mitchell (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.
  • In Sunrise at Campobello (1960), the character Louis Howe (played by Hume Cronyn) reads the poem to Franklin D. Roosevelt (played by Ralph Bellamy). The recitation is at first light-hearted and partially in jest, but as it continues both men appear to realize the significance of the poem to Roosevelt's fight against his paralytic illness.
  • Nelson Mandela is depicted in Invictus (2009) presenting a copy of the poem to Francois Pienaar, captain of the national South African rugby team, for inspiration during the Rugby World Cup—though at the actual event he gave Pienaar a text of "The Man in the Arena" passage from Theodore Roosevelt's Citizenship in a Republic speech delivered in France in 1910.[39]
  • The last two lines "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul" are shown in a picture during the 25th minute of the film The Big Short (2015).
  • Star Trek: Renegades (2015) opens with Lexxa Singh reciting the poem and writing it on the wall of her prison cell.


  • In the 5th episode of the 2nd season of Archer, "The Double Deuce" (2011), Woodhouse describes Reggie as "in the words of Henley, 'bloody, but unbowed'".
  • In the 8th episode of the 5th season of TV series The Blacklist, "Ian Garvey", Raymond 'Red' Reddington (played by James Spader) reads the poem to Elizabeth Keen when she wakes up from a ten-month coma.
  • In the 6th episode of the third season of One Tree Hill, "Locked Hearts & Hand Grenades" (2006), Lucas Scott (played by Chad Michael Murray) references the poem in an argument with Haley James Scott (played by Bethany Joy Lenz) over his heart condition and playing basketball. The episode ends with Lucas reading the whole poem over a series of images that link the various characters to the themes of the poem.
  • In season 1, episode 2 of New Amsterdam, "Ritual", Dr. Floyd Reynolds (played by Jocko Sims) references the poem while prepping hands for surgery prior to a conversation with his fellow doctor Dr. Lauren Bloom (played by Janet Montgomery).
  • In the episode "Interlude" of the series The Lieutenant, the lead character and the woman he is infatuated with jointly recite the poem after she has said it is her favorite poem. His reciting is flawed by lapses, which she fills in.
  • In season 4, episode 14 of New Amsterdam, "...Unto the Breach", Dr. Floyd Reynolds (played by Jocko Sims) recites the poem while prepping for surgery.
  • In season 1, episode 3 of Hulu's Nine Perfect Strangers, Napoleon Marconi (played by Michael Shannon) references the poem in his one-on-one with Masha (played by Nicole Kidman) when referring to his son who died by suicide. Napoleon states, "Zach chose to be the master of his fate" referencing the line "I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul" by Henley.
  • In episode 22, season 5 of 30 Rock, “Everything Sunny All the Time Always”, Jack Donaghy quotes the last two lines of the poem in to Liz Lemon.



Video games

  • The second stanza is recited by Lieutenant-Commander Ashley Williams in the 2012 video game Mass Effect 3
  • The game Sunless Sea features an "Invictus Token" for players who forgo the right to create backups of their current game state. The item text includes the last two lines of the poem.
  • The poem was recited in an early commercial for the Microsoft Xbox One.
  • The game Robotics;Notes features the last two lines of the poem in its epigraph.


  • The lines "I am the master of my fate... I am the captain of my soul" are paraphrased in Lana Del Rey's song "Lust for Life" featuring The Weeknd. The lyrics are changed from "I" to "we," alluding to a relationship.
  • Belgian Black / Folk Metal band Ancient Rites use the poem as a song on their album Rvbicon (Latin form of Rubicon)
  • The prominent classical contemporary Indonesian composer Ananda Sukarlan (b. 1968) made a song for soprano, cello and piano in 2023. It was premiered by the soprano Ratnaganadi Paramita in Jakarta, Indonesia.
  • The Canadian punk band D.O.A. released a record entitled Bloodied but Unbowed (The Damage to Date 1978-83) in 1983.

See also



  1. ^ a b Goldman, Martin (1987). Lister's Ward. Adam Hilger. ISBN 0852745621.
  2. ^ a b Faisal, Arafat (Oct 2019). "Reflection of William Ernest Henley's Own Life Through the Poem Invictus" (PDF). International Journal of English, Literature and Social Science. 4: 1. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2024-02-07 – via Google Scholar.
  3. ^ Cohen, Edward (April 2004). "The second series of W. E. Henley's hospital poems". Yale University Library Gazette. 78 (3/4): 129. JSTOR 40859569.
  4. ^ "Invictus analysis". jreed.eshs Archived 2016-03-12 at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ Spartans and Stoics – Stiff Upper Lip – Icons of England Archived 12 December 2009 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved 20 February 2011
  6. ^ "Latinitium – Online Latin Dictionaries". Latinitium. Archived from the original on 2022-11-21. Retrieved 2020-12-13.
  7. ^ a b c Cohen, Edward H. "Two Anticipations of Henley's 'Invictus.'" Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 2, 1974, pp. 191–196. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3817033. Accessed 30 Oct. 2020.
  8. ^ "Gangrene – Symptoms and causes". Mayo Clinic. Archived from the original on 2020-11-01. Retrieved 2020-10-30.
  9. ^ Henley, William Ernest (July 17, 1889). A book of verses /. New York. hdl:2027/hvd.hwk9sr.
  10. ^ Henley, William Ernest (1891). A book of verses (Second ed.). New York: Scribner & Welford. pp. 56–57. hdl:2027/hvd.hwk9sr.
  11. ^ Henley, William Ernest (1900). Poems (Fourth ed.). London: David Nutt. p. 119.
  12. ^ Henley, William Ernest (1888). A book of verses. London: D. Nutt. pp. 56–57. OCLC 13897970. Archived from the original on 2021-06-29. Retrieved 2015-04-04.
  13. ^ "Myself". Weekly Telegraph. Sheffield (England). 1888-09-15. p. 587.
  14. ^ "Song of a Strong Soul". Pittsburgh Daily Post. Pittsburgh, PA. 1889-07-10. p. 4.
  15. ^ "My Soul". Lawrence Daily Journal. Lawrence, KS. 1889-07-12. p. 2.
  16. ^ "Clear Grit". Commercial Advertiser. Buffalo, NY. 1889-07-12. p. 2.
  17. ^ "Master of His Fate". Weekly Times-Democrat. New Orleans, LA. 1892-02-05. p. 8.
  18. ^ "Captain of My Soul". Lincoln Daily Call. Lincoln, NE. 1892-09-08. p. 4.
  19. ^ "Urbs Fortitudinis". Indianapolis Journal. Indianapolis, IN. 1896-12-06. p. 15.
  20. ^ "De Profundis". Daily World. Vancouver, BC. 1899-10-07. p. 3.
  21. ^ Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch, ed. (1902). The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250–1900 (1st (6th impression) ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 1019. hdl:2027/hvd.32044086685195. OCLC 3737413.
  22. ^ Wilson, A.N. (2001-06-11). "World of books". Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 2010-04-30. Retrieved 2009-12-14.
  23. ^ "Famous Quotations and Stories" Archived 2015-10-16 at the Wayback Machine. Winston Churchill.org.
  24. ^ Boehmer, Elleke (2008). "Nelson Mandela: a very short introduction". Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780192803016. Invictus, taken on its own, Mandela clearly found his Victorian ethic of self-mastery
  25. ^ Daniels, Eddie (1998) There and back
  26. ^ Independent, 8/30/17
  27. ^ Aung San Suu Kyi. 2011. "Securing Freedom Archived 2016-03-05 at the Wayback Machine" (lecture transcript). Reith Lectures, Lecture 1: Liberty. UK BBC Radio 4.
  28. ^ Stockdale, James (1993). "Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus's Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior" (PDF). Hoover Institution, Stanford. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2020-10-19. Retrieved 2014-12-31.
  29. ^ "UK News". mirror. Archived from the original on 2023-10-14. Retrieved 2021-07-17.
  30. ^ "The Economist Dec 14th, 2013". The Economist. Archived from the original on 2014-01-09. Retrieved 10 January 2014.
  31. ^ Quayle, Catherine (June 11, 2001). "Execution of an American Terrorist". Court TV. Archived from the original on December 1, 2014. Retrieved February 6, 2012.
  32. ^ Cosby, Rita (June 12, 2001). "Timothy McVeigh Put to Death for Oklahoma City Bombings". FOX News. Archived from the original on April 13, 2008. Retrieved April 15, 2008.
  33. ^ "McVeigh's final statement". the Guardian. 2001-06-11. Retrieved 2022-11-16.
  34. ^ Kornhaber, Spencer (2019-03-16). "When Poems of Resilience Get Twisted for Terrorism". The Atlantic. Archived from the original on 2022-11-21. Retrieved 2022-11-16.
  35. ^ "‘Invictus’ was among John Lewis’s favorite poems. It captures his indomitable spirit. Archived 2020-07-18 at the Wayback Machine." The Washington Post. 17 July 2020.
  36. ^ Duke of Sussex, Prince Harry (2023). Spare. Penguin Random House. ISBN 9780593593806.
  37. ^ Sayers, Dorothy (1943). Clouds of Witness. Classic Gems Publishing. p. 28. Retrieved 2014-05-15.[permanent dead link]
  38. ^ Casablanca Movieclips excerpt on YouTube
  39. ^ Dominic Sandbrook (30 January 2010). "British leaders: they're not what they were". The Daily Telegraph (UK). Archived from the original on 1 February 2010.
  40. ^ "Green Bay Packers". www.facebook.com. Archived from the original on 2022-11-21. Retrieved 2018-08-06.
  41. ^ "Daniel Craig, Tom Hardy & Will.i.am recite 'Invictus' to support the Invictus Games". YouTube. 29 May 2014. Archived from the original on 2021-12-11. Retrieved 9 May 2016.
  42. ^ "When are Prince Harry's Invictus Games and what are they?". The Daily Telegraph. 8 May 2016. Archived from the original on 3 January 2021. Retrieved 9 May 2016.