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.
Though published 126 years ago, this poem “Invictus,” meaning unconquered in Latin, is still relevant as ever to us today. The four stanzas, written by William Ernest Henley, are timeless and powerful, and remind us that we can choose our paths no matter the circumstances we may find ourselves in or the challenges we face.
In 1875, Henley had one of his legs amputated due to complications from tuberculosis. His doctors told him he would have to get his remaining leg amputated as well, but Henley refused to comply. Instead, he enlisted the help of renowned surgeon Joseph Lister to save his leg. Lister performed many surgical procedures on Henley’s foot, ultimately preserving his remaining leg.
While recovering from these surgeries in the hospital, Henley felt impressed to write the words that now comprise “Invictus.” His feelings of coping with the amputation and saving his other leg, mixed with memories of his impoverished childhood, greatly influenced the formation of this famous poem.
Many have found comfort and strength from Henley’s inspired words that draw from his life experiences. Nelson Mandela, the late president of South Africa, found hope and power in “Invictus” during his 27 years in prison, sentenced for his anti-apartheid beliefs and revolutionary actions. Mandela spent nearly a third of his life in prison, much of that time doing hard labor, because he believed that all men and women are created equal.
As “Invictus” taught him, Mandela believed he was the master of his fate and the captain of his soul. He didn’t let his prison sentence embitter or defeat him; he didn’t give up on his beliefs, his goals, his life. Once released, he went on to change the nation by guiding South Africa to a multiracial free-market democracy.
Popular mental health blogger Seth Adam Smith said of Mandela that “instead of blaming his circumstances, Nelson Mandela accepted responsibility for his fate and emerged from prison a different kind of revolutionary — one whose attitude of forgiveness would change the world.”
Like Mandela and many others, we can find strength and the power of resilience from the poem “Invictus.” Though our challenges may seem insurmountable, though we may want to give in to the great abyss, we are strong and triumphant. We are masters of our fate. We are captains of our souls.