Our Featured Poem is a little late this week after all the Think Day business here at The Reader, but better late than never and we’ve found a classic fitting for Mental Health Awareness Week.
A Reader favourite and oft-quoted poem, WE Henley‘s Invictus was written in 1875 and published in his first volume of poems, Book of Verses, in 1888. The poem was something of a ‘one hit wonder’ for Henley, forming the basis of his literary reputation yet the closing lines, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul”, have fostered an eminence in their own right over the years.
The poem’s beginnings however, may be less well known. In 1875 Henley had a leg amputated due to complications arising from tuberculous and was told that a similar procedure would have to be undertaken on his remaining leg. However, Henley chose to enlist the services of a distinguished surgeon who, through a series of complicated surgical interventions, was able to save the limb.
This monumental episode in Henley‘s own physical health was to inspire a poem that became synonymous with the personal struggle many experience with mental health.
Meaning “unconquered”, the poem’s Latin title proclaims the defiant, victorious tone from the off, yet the body of the poem betrays the real grind through which this victory has been earned. From the opening line, we seem to step out of the all-encompassing darkness alongside the speaker, sharing in their gratitude to “whatever gods may be” for the strength or guidance or sheer obstinacy that has seen us through.
For Henley, the endeavor has been faced bravely, his head “bloody, but unbowed” yet it is easy to imagine how the continual “bludgeonings” could break down the spirit as well as the physical nerve. The unrelenting horror which ‘looms beyond this place of wrath and tears’ seems a dark and unforgiving place much more theoretical than the physical hospital walls the writer had found himself within.
It’s a place that many who have suffered with ill mental health may recognise, those for whom ‘the menace of the years” may epitomize a lifelong battle with depression. They have not feel “unconquered” as Henley declares himself to be, but the determination in the final lines offer some hope and inspiration, some grasp of control in a period of turmoil, “I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul”.
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