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Saturday, January 17, 2015

My Analysis of the Classic Poem "INVICTUS"

In 1875 one of William Ernest 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 surgeon Joseph Lister, who was able to save Henley's remaining leg after multiple surgical interventions on the foot.  While recovering in the infirmary, he was moved to write the verses that became "Invictus", which was not published until 1888.  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.  I believe "Invictus" - Latin for "Unconquered" - to be about his very personal exploration of the indomitability of  the human "spirit".  Looking at each quatrain individually, I have come to the following conclusions (in blue)…

"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. "

The first two lines could reflect his awakening from whatever anesthetic was available in the mid-1800's (probably chloroform - 1831), or the black pit created within his own mind at the thought of losing his legs at the age of 26 years.
The last two lines indicate an uncertainty about the existence of supreme beings (it has been suggested that Henley was an atheist).  But, just in case there be gods, he thanks them for giving him the strength to carry on with his life.

"In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed."

Basically, this is his "Shit happens" statement.  The circumstances of life in the mid-1800s (when the disease of tuberculosis was commonplace) had descended upon him full force, assaulting his body… but his spirit would not yield!

"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."

Looking toward the future, he sees the specter of death ("the Horror of the shade") watching him with great anticipation. Yet - knowing that - he chooses to go forth without trepidation… essentially "thumbing his nose" at death.

"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."

Here's where it gets a little tricky.  The English language (American version) is in a constant state of flux, ever adding, subtracting, modifying or creating words and phrases to more accurately communicate our thoughts, observations and feelings.  Considering that fact, and the inspiration for this poem, I expect that the use of the word "gate" here, is what we today refer to as "gait" (manner of walking).  Henley sees himself as embattled by the vicissitudes of fate (the "punishments", on his personal roadmap of life, being tuberculosis and amputation). He walks the pathways of his life as truly (strait) as he can, and yet under attack, he refuses to surrender to death, declaring HIS CONTROL OVER HIS LIFE!

Anyone who is not impressed with the power of INVICTUS, must be deficient in spirit.  The truthfulness of Henley's words was best demonstrated by the Jews imprisoned by the German Nazi's during World War II.  Although their bodies were trapped, many of them  sang a German folksong entitled "Die Gedanken Sind Frei" (My thoughts freely flower; My mind is FREE).  A subtle finger poke to the eyes of their captors.  Regardless of your physical circumstances, DO NOT permit your mind to be shackled, and NEVER SURRENDER!


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