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This article is about the poem. For the 2009 film, see Invictus (film). For other uses, see Invictus (disambiguation).
William Ernest Henley Vanity Fair 1892-11-26.jpg
A 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—originally with no title—in his first volume of poems, Book of Verses, in the section Life and Death (Echoes).[1]

Early printings contained a dedication "To R. T. H. B."—a reference to Robert Thomas Hamilton Bruce (1846–1899), a successful Scottish flour merchant, baker, and 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] With the message of displaying fortitude in the face of adversity, the poem evokes Victorian stoicism and a "stiff upper lip".[6]


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 bludgeoning 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.[1]


Henley's literary reputation rests almost entirely upon this single poem.[7] In 1875 one of Henley's legs required amputation due to complications arising from tuberculosis. Immediately after the amputation he was told that his other leg would require a similar procedure. He chose instead to enlist the services of the distinguished English surgeon Joseph Lister, who was able to save Henley's remaining leg after multiple surgical interventions on the foot.[8]

While recovering in the infirmary, he was moved to write the verses that became "Invictus". This period of his life, coupled with recollections of an impoverished childhood, were primary inspirations for the poem, and play a major role in its meaning.[9] A memorable evocation of Victorian stoicism—the "stiff upper lip" self-discipline and fortitude in adversity, which popular culture rendered into a British character trait, "Invictus" remains a cultural touchstone.[6]

Historical Influence[edit]

  • In a speech to the House of Commons on 9 September 1941, Winston Churchill paraphrased the last two lines of the poem, stating "We are still masters of our fate. We still are captains of our souls."[10]
  • While incarcerated at Robben Island prison, Nelson Mandela recited the poem to other prisoners and was empowered by its message of self-mastery.[11][12]
  • 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 independence struggle, as it also seemed to have inspired freedom fighters in other places at other times."[13]
  • The poem was read by US POWs in North Vietnamese prisons. James Stockdale recalls being passed the last stanza, written with rat droppings on toilet paper, from fellow prisoner David Hatcher.[14]
  • The line "bloody, but unbowed" was the Daily Mirror's headline the day after the 7 July 2005 London bombings.[15]
  • The poem's last stanza was quoted by US President Barack Obama at the end of his 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.[16]
  • The poem was chosen by Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh as his final statement before his execution.[17][18]

Cultural references[edit]

  • C. S. Lewis included a quote from the last stanza in Book 5, chapter 3 of his early autobiographical work The Pilgrim's Regress (1933).
  • In Oscar Wilde's De Profundis letter in 1897, he reminisces that 'I was no longer the Captain of my soul'.
  • 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. Ironically, after delivering this line, he is called away by an aide to Gestapo officer Major Strasser.
  • The Invictus Games; an international Paralympic-style multi-sport event created by Prince Harry in which wounded, injured or sick armed services personnel and their associated veterans take part in sport, has featured the poem in its promotions. Prior to the inaugural games in London in 2014, entertainers including Daniel Craig and Tom Hardy, and athletes including Louis Smith and Iwan Thomas, read the poem in a promotional video.[19][20]
  • In the 1942 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.
  • Mandela is depicted in the movie Invictus 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.[21]
  • The line "bloody, but unbowed" was quoted by Lord Peter Wimsey in Dorothy Sayers' 1926 novel Clouds of Witness, in reference to his failure to exonerate his brother of the charge of murder.[22]
  • 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.
  • The second stanza is recited by Lieutenant-Commander Ashley Williams in the 2012 video game Mass Effect 3

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Henley, William Ernest (1888). A book of verses. London: D. Nutt. pp. 56–57. 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. ^ a b Spartans and Stoics - Stiff Upper Lip - Icons of England Archived 12 December 2009 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 20 February 2011
  7. ^ University of California Press JSTOR 3817033
  8. ^ "Invictus analysis". jreed.eshs
  9. ^ "Biography of William Ernest Henley. Poetry Foundation
  10. ^ "Famous Quotations and Stories". Winston
  11. ^ Boehmer, Elleke (2008). "Nelson Mandela: a very short introduction". Oxford University Press. Invictus, taken on its own, Mandela clearly found his Victorian ethic of self-mastery 
  12. ^ Daniels, Eddie (1998) There and back
  13. ^ Aung San Suu Kyi in BBC Reith Lecture, 2011-06-28
  14. ^ Stockdale, James (1993). "Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus's Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior" (PDF). Hoover Institution, Stanford. 
  15. ^ "Bloodied but unbowed"
  16. ^ "The Economist Dec 14th, 2013". Retrieved 10 January 2014. 
  17. ^ Quayle, Catherine (June 11, 2001). "Execution of an American Terrorist". Court TV. 
  18. ^ Cosby, Rita (June 12, 2001). "Timothy McVeigh Put to Death for Oklahoma City Bombings". FOX News. Retrieved April 15, 2008. 
  19. ^ "Daniel Craig, Tom Hardy & recite 'Invictus' to support the Invictus Games". YouTube. 29 May 2014. Retrieved 9 May 2016. 
  20. ^ "When are Prince Harry's Invictus Games and what are they?". The Daily Telegraph. 8 May 2016. Retrieved 9 May 2016. 
  21. ^ Dominic Sandbrook (30 January 2010). "British leaders: they're not what they were". The Daily Telegraph (UK). 
  22. ^ Sayers, Dorothy (1943). Clouds of Witness. Classic Gems Publishing. p. 28. Retrieved 2014-05-15. 

External links[edit]

  • Works related to Invictus at Wikisource