“Invictus” is a short poem by the Victorian era British poet William Ernest Henley (1849–1903). It was written in 1875 and published in 1888 in his first volume of poems, Book of Verses, in the section Life and Death (Echoes). When Henley was 16 years old, his left leg required amputation due to complications arising from tuberculosis. In the early 1870s, after seeking treatment for problems with his other leg at Margate, he was told that it would require a similar procedure. He instead chose to travel to Edinburgh in August 1873 to enlist the services of the distinguished English 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 the poem “Invictus”. A memorable evocation of Victorian stoicism—the “stiff upper lip” of self-discipline and fortitude in adversity, which popular culture rendered into a British character trait—”Invictus” remains a cultural touchstone.
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.