Invictus – A Poem

by Rachel Baker on February 18, 2011

Last night, I watched the movie Invictus – what a great inspirational movie.  This morning I woke up wondering about the poem that Mandela shared with Francois Pienaar in the movie. It was difficult to hear some of the words of the poem, as they were recited over much background noise.  Did it exist or was it made up for the movie?  Well, ladies and gentlemen, it exists…and I thought I’d share it today as something for all of us to think about.

Without further ado, I give you

Invictusa Victorian poem by the English poet William Ernest Henley

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.

Background: At the age of 12, Henley fell victim to tuberculosis of the bone. A few years later, the disease progressed to his foot, and physicians announced that the only way to save his life was to amputate directly below the knee. It was amputated when he was 25. In 1875, he wrote the “Invictus” poem from a hospital bed. Despite his disability, he survived with one foot intact and led an active life until his death at the age of 53.

Publication History: The poem was written in 1875 and first published in 1888 in Henley’s Book of Verses, where it was the fourth in a series of poems entitled Life and Death (Echoes). It originally bore no title. 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. The familiar title “Invictus” (Latin for “unconquerable”) was added by Arthur Quiller-Couch when he included the poem in The Oxford Book Of English Verse (1900).

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