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.
– William Ernest Henley
Is this poem great, or is it crap? Is it well-wrought inspiration, or overwrought egotism? Do you love it, or hate it?
John Ciardi, one of the best poetry critics ever to write, was not a fan of the poem, which he described as “perhaps the most widely known bad poem in English”:
“Invictus” (“Unconquered”) is perhaps the most widely known bad poem in English, and certainly there is no trace in it of a technical flaw on which its badness could be blamed. Nor is the poem bad because of its subject matter. Hardy and Housman, among others, have written many poems that take as bleakly pessimistic an attitude toward life as does “Invictus.” The success of many such poems is sufficient evidence that English and American readers can enter into a sympathetic contract to consider the world as some sort of unhappy pit. It is not in the way Henley takes his subject, but in the way he takes himself that the reader parts company with the poet. To take the world as one’s subject and to take the attitude that it is nothing but a place of suffering is one thing; but to react by taking oneself with such chest-thumping heroics, is very much another. One feels that Henley is not really reacting from his own profoundest depths but that he is making some sort of overdramatic speech about pessimism. There is a failure of character in the tone he has assumed. The poet has presented himself as unflinchingly valiant. The reader cannot help but find him merely inflated and self-dramatizing.
Is that criticism fair?
The poem certainly is extreme, and seems almost laughable when adopted by those whose worst “fell clutch of circumstance” is a traffic jam or a failing stock portfolio. The fact that shallow middle-managers quote it after a mediocre review does tempt one to sneer at the poem for its self-dramatizing fans.
More sinister, this is the poem that Timothy McVeigh, the cowardly terrorist and murderer of children, used as his last words. The poem helped him bolster his valiant self-image till the moment of his death.
And yet the poem has served others, as well. Nelson Mandela recited the poem to himself when he was imprisoned during Apartheid, and he taught it to fellow inmates. John McCain recalled the words during his imprisonment in North Vietnam.
The poet himself came by his valor honestly. He suffered from tuberculosis, and wrote the poem after the amputation of his foot, in an age when surgery was not a white-gowned affair, and the handicapped did not get reserved parking for their carriages. Henley remained an active poet, critic and teacher, and thrived despite his disability. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote to him after publishing “Treasure Island”, “I will now make a confession. It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver…the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound [voice alone], was entirely taken from you”.
Despite my admiration of John Ciardi, I disagree with him on this one. “Invictus” is a great poem. It sparks a reaction in those who read it, and we are drawn to apply it to our own lives and situations, however ignoble or bland they may appear to others. The “bludgeonings of chance” in our lives may not be prison torture; they may be challenges at work or at home, and yet we all need inspiration. “Invictus” speaks to our stronger selves, even if our circumstances are not at the extreme of human suffering.