My Conquerable Soul

One of the most famous poems of all time is called “Invictus”, written by William Ernest Henley in 1875. It has been quoted endlessly; you will probably recognize a few phrases. The poem, written in simple English with an alternate-rhyming pattern, is extremely powerful. It captures something common about the human condition, and if you read it slowly and without distraction, it will be nearly impossible for you not to feel something darkly magnetic about these words.


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.

At first reading, it’s hard not to be drawn in by these “inspiring” words. They’re captivating. I really mean it when I say that the poem really does capture a desire felt by all mankind. Unfortunately that desire, which at first seems so noble and beautiful – to be the captain of your own soul – is the same kind of unbridled pride which overtook Adam and Eve and resulted in the Fall of the entire human race. (Yes, it is that heavy, and yes that is exactly what “Invictus” is describing). A little background information will go a long way.

William Ernest Henley did not have a pleasant life by anyone’s standards. At the age of 12 he was diagnosed with a unique form of tuberculosis that spread throughout his body. To extend his life at the age of 17, doctors amputated his left leg below the knee. His upper body continued to grow while his lower body withered, and he developed painful abscesses in his joints. He suffered his entire life, and being unable to cope with his circumstances, developed an intense hatred and irreverence toward anything sacred – especially God. Capturing his inability to deal with his plight, “Invictus” is the outpouring of Henley’s hostility and pride against the Divine. The words of the poem itself reveal how completely broken and tortured Henley’s life was:

  • He felt “covered by night” that’s “black as the Pit,” but still describes his own soul is “unconquerable.”
  • He claimed that despite his circumstances (which he says “chance” is responsible for), “he has not winced or cried aloud.” (But what is the poem itself, if not a desperate cry from a tormented man lying in the confines of a hospital bed?)
  • The meaning of “unbowed” is obvious – Henley refused to pray or acknowledge the existence of God in any way. His allowance of “the gods” in the first stanza only serves as self-centered praise.
  • The “strait gate” is a clear, unashamed reference to the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:13-14. Equally clear is that “the scroll” refers to the Bible (or more directly, God’s impending judgment as described in the Bible). Henley spit directly in the face of the loving God of the universe, claiming that he himself would command his own destiny.

Suffice it to say that “Invictus” (which is Latin for “unconquered”) is nothing but Henley’s declaration of independence from God. It is an empty praise chorus to human pride. This pride is within us all; it is the root of all sin. We all wrongfully desire to be the master of our own fate, much to our own destruction. But as Paul wrote to the Philippians, one day “every knee shall bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” And it brings me no joy whatsoever to say that William Ernest Henley is now acutely aware of exactly who the Captain is.

Many years ago, Dorothea Day wrote a response to “Invictus” called “My Captain.” Day’s version, of course, owes its framework to Henley’s original work, but it remains unique in its own regard and is a perfect conclusion to this post.

My Captain

Out of the night that dazzles me
Bright as the sun from pole to pole,
I thank the God I know to be
For Christ the conqueror of my soul.

Since His the sway of circumstance,
I would not wince nor cry aloud.
Under that rule which men call chance
My head with joy is humbly bowed.

Beyond this place of sin and tears
That life with Him! And His the aid,
Despite the menace of the years,
Keeps, and shall keep me, unafraid.

I have no fear, though strait the gate,
He cleared from punishment the scroll.
Christ is the Master of my fate:
Christ is the Captain of my soul.

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