Text of the Poem

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.


  1. This metaphor compares Henley’s relationship to his soul to that of a captain to his own ship. This metaphor can be read beyond the final words of the poem, suggesting that though Henley cannot control the waters in which the ship travels—much like how we cannot control many of the events that happen to us in life—he can still steer his soul in the direction he wants to go.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. This phrase is borrowed from a passage in the Bible, Matthew 7:14: “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” In both instances, the phrase refers to the idea that pursuing a righteous path in life is harder than pursuing a sinful one.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. The “place of wrath and tears” represents life and its difficulties, and Henley uses the phrase “Horror of the shade” to describe the fear of death, the ultimate darkness (or shade). By stating that death is inevitable but that he isn’t afraid of it, he is asserting his command over his fears and emotions. This phrase is also reminiscent of Psalm 23:4 in the Bible, which suggests that those who follow God need not fear death: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Capitalizing the “h” in “Horror” gives it more power and was popular in the poetry of the Romantic era, which preceded the Victorian era.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  4. In both this phrase and “fell clutch of circumstance” above, Henley applies personification to the concepts of circumstance and chance. That is, he attributes human-like behaviors to these concepts, as if they were capable of clutching or bludgeoning someone. Personification like this is often used to imbue verse with rich imagery.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  5. In context, the adjective “fell” means something that is evil or deadly.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  6. It was in Victorian society that the idea of keeping a “stiff upper lip”—that is, remaining stoic while dealing with great personal suffering—became popular. The belief that one’s soul could not be tarnished, no matter the hardships one experienced, is reflected in both this line and the poem as a whole. The popularity of “Invictus” helped reinforce this attitude, as did many other works of Victorian poetry and literature.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  7. This reference to a black pit is an extension of the darkness metaphor used above and also likely a more specific allusion, perhaps to hell itself or the Victorian coal pits. The presence of the definitive article “the” suggests an allusion to hell because it states “one and only.” The pit and hell are used synonymously in religious texts, and as an allusion to hell, “the pit” reinforces the darkness metaphor Henley establishes, suggesting a kind of spiritual darkness. As an allusion to the Victorian coal pits, “the pit” draws on historical context; during England’s Industrial Revolution, which started before the Victorian era and continued into it, coal became a desirable commodity used to power trains and generate electricity. Coal mines had terrible working conditions, with many people falling ill or even dying. They were often referenced symbolically in Victorian literature.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  8. Henley uses a metaphor to compare his struggles to the darkness of the night. In this case, the metaphorical darkness that surrounds him is physical pain and the threat of death. Henley wrote this poem while in the hospital recovering from surgery that saved his right leg from the debilitating effects of tuberculosis of the bone. Henley’s left leg had been lost to the disease years prior.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor