Invictus by William Ernest Henley: Meaning & Analysis

Invictus by William Ernest Henley: Meaning & Analysis
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  • 0:00 'Invictus' the Poem
  • 1:12 Writing 'Invictus'
  • 1:57 The Form & Meter
  • 3:08 Themes
  • 4:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ian Matthews

Ian teaches college writing and has a Master's in Writing and Publishing

'Invictus' by William Ernest Henley is an uplifting poem typically quoted in troubled times. This video lesson will first look at this poem, then break down its meaning.

'Invictus' the Poem

It's been quoted by everyone, from Winston Churchill to President Barack Obama; from Nelson Mandela, to U.S. prisoners of war in Vietnam. It has lent its title to a movie starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. 'Invictus' by William Ernest Henley is often quoted in troubled times for its triumphant tone and uplifting message. Let's look at this uplifting poem:

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.

Writing 'Invictus'

William Ernest Henley was born in Gloucester, England, in 1849. His father was an unsuccessful bookseller who passed away when Henley was a teenager. When he was 12 years old, Henley contracted tuberculosis in his bones. The disease forced doctors to amputate his left leg below his knee, and Henley also battled the disease in his right foot for several years. Doctors recommended that the right foot be amputated, but Henley chose to go under the knife for a groundbreaking surgery to save his foot.

The surgery, performed by a man named Joseph Lister, was successful, and Henley's foot was saved. He started writing his first poems, including 'Invictus,' while he was in the hospital recovering from this surgery.

The Form & Meter

'Invictus' doesn't follow a set poetic form like a sonnet or a villanelle, but it does have a form. The poem is written in four quatrains: four sets of four lines. Each quatrain follows an ABAB rhyme scheme, where the first line rhymes with the third and the second line rhymes with the fourth. You've probably seen poems with this rhyme scheme before. The beginnings of most of Shakespeare's sonnets follow it (they throw a curveball at the end, but that's for another lesson).

When quatrains follow the ABAB rhyme scheme, they're called heroic quatrains. The heroic quatrains of 'Invictus' also closely follow a meter called iambic tetrameter. You might have heard of this meter's cousin iambic pentameter, again, when learning about Shakespeare. Iambic tetrameter lines are eight syllables long, with four stressed syllables and four unstressed, like so:

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

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