The English poet, William Ernest Henley (1849–1903), is remembered mainly for a single poem, “Invictus” (Latin for “unconquered”):
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.
This poem has inspired millions. Famous and infamous alike have drawn courage from it. Nelson Mandela recited it on his darker days in prison. Timothy McVeigh invoked it as he received lethal injection for murdering 167 people in the Oklahoma City bombing.
A Delusional Fantasy
“Self-centered, self-exalting courageous resolve is not true greatness. It is greatness perverted.”
Henley wrote “Invictus” when he was 27 years old, having battled Tuberculosis of the bone for years, to which he had lost a leg and which eventually killed him at age 53. He was an avowed atheist, so the only place he could look for strength was himself. He didn’t believe there was any larger purpose to his pain. It was just “the bludgeonings of chance.” His only hope was to take his bludgeonings like a man, which to him meant a stoic resolve never to surrender.
So Henley wrote “Invictus” as a poetic middle finger to the cosmos — and if God did exist (see the last stanza) to him, too.
“Invictus” is decent poetry, but as a declaration of cosmic independence it is, frankly, a delusional fantasy. Even if God didn’t exist, it would be a fantasy. In what possible way could Henley reasonably claim to be the master of his fate, being subject to a thousand forces beyond his control? It takes more than stubborn resolve to make one master of his fate, as any parent of a toddler can tell you. The poem is more like a metaphysical temper tantrum — “No one’s going to be the boss of me!” (If you like your “Invictus” with more schmaltz and melodrama, there’s always “My Way.”)
Henley also wrote this during the heady days of Victorian-era enlightenment when the air of Darwin and Nietzsche felt bracing and fresh, and when Christianity looked (as it has so often) to be gasping toward extinction. And yet such verses could be written in the safety and prosperity of a Europe still governed by the courtly ethics of Western Christendom.
One wonders, if Henley had been given another century to live, would he have still written this in 1975, after men of Darwinian worldview and nihilistic, Nietzschean and Marxian philosophies had willed to power and ruthlessly wielded their invictus resolve, resulting in the slaughter of tens of millions?
A Close Counterfeit
But one reason this poem has power to inspire people (besides its appeal to their fallen prideful natures) is that it’s a close enough counterfeit to the courageous resolve of true greatness that it stirs their admiration of it.
We all know instinctively that there is virtue in courageous resolve. But it has to be the right kind. That’s why the real heroes of history have been those who sacrificed greatly, sometimes ultimately, for a just cause bigger than themselves. Biblically speaking, there are several:
- Moses before Pharaoh,
- Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego unbowed before Nebuchadnezzar,
- Daniel willing to face the lions,
- The Apostles before the Sanhedrin,
- James facing Herod’s sword,
- Paul facing Nero’s sword,
- Jesus before Pilate.
All these stood up to evil for the sake of righteousness and swore to their own hurt. We admire this kind of courage because we know intuitively that this is true greatness: dying to self for the sake of others.
But most of us don’t admire the Nebuchadnezzars, Nietzsches, Hitlers, or Timothy McVeighs of history, even if what they accomplished required a kind of courageous resolve. Why? Because we know nihilistic, self-centered, self-exalting courageous resolve is not true greatness. It is greatness perverted.
And that’s what “Invictus” is at its heart. It is a deluded claim to self-sovereignty. It has a ring of heroism, but it is a counterfeit. When we see self-supremacy for what it really is, we recognize delusion. And we have seen that when it wields real power, horribly destructive evil is unleashed.
In the early part of the 20th Century, Dorothy Day responded to Henley’s manifesto with this poem that she titled, “Conquered”:
Out of the light that dazzles me,
Bright as the sun from pole to pole,
I thank the God I know to be,
For Christ - the Conqueror of my soul.
Since His the sway of circumstance,
I would not wince nor cry aloud.
Under the rule which men call chance,
My head, with joy, is humbly bowed.
Beyond this place of sin and tears,
That Life with Him and His the Aid,
That, spite the menace of the years,
Keeps, and will keep me unafraid.
I have no fear though straight the gate:
He cleared from punishment the scroll.
Christ is the Master of my fate!
Christ is the Captain of my soul!
“If Christ is the master of our fates, the captain of our souls, we have nothing to fear.”
The greatest need of our souls is to be conquered by the self-sacrificing, sinner-serving Christ and direct our invictus manifesto against evil — especially the evil within us. Supernatural and natural evil will beat us bloody at times (literally and metaphorically). Against such evil, by all righteous means, stand firm (Ephesians 6:13).
The incredibly good news is that in Christ who loved us and gave himself for us (Ephesians 5:2) we are more than conquerors (Romans 8:37)! Ours is not a stoic resolve against mindless evil. Ours is a hope-infused courageous resolve because, come what may, the end will be glorious beyond all comparison (Romans 8:18).
If Christ is the master of our fates, the captain of our souls, we have nothing to fear (1 John 4:18), we will be sustained to the end with our scroll reading guiltless (1 Corinthians 1:8), all will work together for our good (Romans 8:28), and though we die, yet shall we live (John 11:25).
To have an invictus soul is not heroic. It is unbounded foolishness. But to have a soul conquered by the greatest love that exists (John 15:13), that then by God’s grace can withstand the worst that evil can throw at us and be more than conquerors, and then know eternal joy, that is a life worth living.