Archive for Invictus


Posted in Poetry with tags , , on January 27, 2011 by telescoper

I’ve been thinking of sharing this poem – and especially the superb reading of it by Alan Bates – with you for quite a while. There’s no compelling personal reason for choosing today to so, in fact. I’m not myself labouring in the “fell clutch of circumstance”; neither have the “bludgeonings of chance” fallen particularly hard on my head recently. Nevertheless, this poem has been on my mind for quite a while and, anyway, we all need a bit of inspiration from time to time. This certainly does that job for me, as I hope it will for those who are having a tough time of it these days.

Invictus was written by Victorian poet W.E. Henley as a response to having much of his left leg amputated. I’m not a particular fan of Henley’s verse in general – some of it is unpleasantly jingoistic – but I love this poem’s dignified yet forceful expression of resolute defiance in the face of adversity and injustice. It may be a bit “stiff upper lip” for some of you, but there you go.

Among those who have found solace or inspiration in this poem is Nelson Mandela, who kept it close by during the long years of his incarceration in the dreadful prison on Robben Island, a place I visited on a trip to Cape Town a few years ago; I can tell you that it’s every bit as grim as you might imagine. I’m sure he could teach all of us a thing or two about dignified defiance.

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.

And here’s the magnificent reading of the piece by the late Alan Bates.