Henley: Invictus

To me, the poem Invictus, written by William Ernest Henley and published in 1875, is the greatest of all inspirational poems: a man, believing in his own spirit, shaking his fist at the gods or fate – daring them to do their worst – declaring his absolute will to survive and triumph!

William Ernest Henley’s biography was taken from: here.

“William Ernest Henley was born in Gloucester, England on August 23, 1849. He was the first of six children to a barely successful bookseller. He lived an impoverished childhood, but his father did manage to send him to the Crypt Grammar School. He was forced to leave Crypt for medical reasons (although some believe that it may have had to do with finances as well). At age 12 he was diagnosed with tubercular arthritis and by the time he reached sixteen years of age, his left leg was amputated just below his knee. This was only the beginning of Henley’s medical struggle.

Not only did his financial situation perhaps prevent him from acquiring a continuous education, it also hindered any pursuit of his inborn musical talent. Finances became a serious problem when his father died in 1867 and Henley was forced to leave school permanently. He remained a dutiful son and brother by maintaining the household for his widowed mother. In 1869, he became very frustrated with Gloucester and migrated to London to seek employment.

He obtained work as a freelance journalist in London. In 1872, he grew quite ill, in fact too ill to continue residing in London, and relocated to the Marget Royal and Sea Bathing Infirmary. Without much success at Margate, he then went to Edinburgh where he wrote his In Hospital collection of poetry.

It was also in Edinburgh that he fell in love with Anna Boyle, whom he eventually married. Anna was the sister of one of his roommates, Captain Boyle. In January of 1875, Leslie Stephens brought Robert Louis Stevenson to visit Henley in the hospital. A close friendship transpired from this initial meeting. Later in 1875, he was discharged from the hospital and returned to London where he was employed as the editor of the London. In 1878, Henley and Anna Boyle got married and in 1888 they had their only child, Margaret. It was only five years later that they lost Margaret to a fatal case of cerebral meningitis.

In 1889, Henley was named the editor of the Scots Observer and it was also in 1889 there was a huge controversy over the review of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.It was also through the Scots Observer that he was able to befriend Rudyard Kipling.

In 1894, William Ernest Henley surrendered his editorship of the National Observer (formerly the Scots Observer), and he and his wife, Anna, continued to move around England while he still pursued his editing career. For this he was awarded the Civil List Pension. In 1902 he fell from a railway carriage which caused the dormant tuberculosis germ in his system to resurface. In July 1903, he died in peace with his wife by his side.”

Well, that’s the dry bones of William Ernest Henley – who and what he was. But how could a man who was at the lower levels of his society, drifting in and out of poverty and poor health his whole life, produce such an inspiring affirmation of the human spirit? I believe the answer probably lies in the teachings of the English School of philosophers – the same philosophers who inspired the American Revolution.


by 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.