How often do you invoke the spirit of Invictus?

Today is August 12 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you invoke the spirit of Invictus?” Those who navigate the chaos have a strong belief they control their destiny. They remain steadfast in their determination, unconquered by their adversaries, unsubdued by time, and invincible in spirit so that they may serve as master of their fate and captain of their soul. In other words, they invoke the spirit of Invictus.

The lines “master of your fate and captain of your soul” stem from the poem "Invictus" by the Victorian era English poet William Ernest Henley (1849–1903). It was written in 1875 and published in 1888 in his first volume of poems, Book of Verses. Originally, the poem was published with no title.

The poem was reprinted in nineteenth-century newspapers under a variety of titles, including "Myself", "Song of a Strong Soul", "Urbs Fortitudinis", and "De Profundis" among other titles.

The established title "Invictus", Latin for "unconquered” was added by editor Arthur Quiller-Couch when the poem was included in The Oxford Book of English Verse (1900). Here is the full 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.

Henley penned the poem to record his own path of navigating his chaos. When Henley was 16 years old, his left leg required amputation due to complications arising from tuberculosis. In the early 1870s, after seeking treatment for problems with his other leg, he was told that it would require a similar procedure. In August 1873 he chose instead to travel to Edinburgh to enlist the services of the distinguished English surgeon Joseph Lister. After multiple surgeries, Lister was able to save Henley's right leg. While recovering in the infirmary, he was moved to write the verses that became "Invictus".

In the first stanza Henley begins the poem with darkness, a common symbol of hopelessness where the soul is lost or the mind depressed. During this state one is unable to focus on anything but the pain. Anyone trying to translate their dreams into reality knows this feeling of darkness. In the third and fourth lines, however, Henley shifts from a negative tone into the positive, a technique he uses throughout his poem. Lines three and four give thanks and declare an ‘unconquerable soul.’

In the second stanza Henley continues to employ the pendulum swing from negative to positive. He admits to some ‘circumstance,’ or terrible predicament, yet never ‘winced or cried’ about it. Amidst the chaos and bloody head, he never bowed.

In the third stanza Henley refers to the years involved with his ordeal. He admits to the ‘tears and horror of the shade’ but remains ‘unafraid.’ Henley remains unafraid because he manifests a strong belief of controlling his destiny. Despite the years of suffering, he remains steadfast in his determination.

In the fourth and final stanza Henley proclaims that, no matter what you have been through, you can overcome dark times by. Henley navigated his chaos by remaining master of his fate and captain of his soul, and in so doing penned one of the greatest sources of inspiration used by so many in search of light in their own darkness.

The poem evokes the character traits of self-discipline, fortitude in adversity, and self-restraint in the expression of emotion. The poem remains a cultural touchstone and has been referred to by many including Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, and John Lewis.

In a speech to the House of Commons on 9 September 1941, Winston Churchill paraphrased the last two lines of the poem, stating "We are still masters of our fate. We still are captains of our souls."

Nelson Mandela, while incarcerated at Robben Island prison, recited the poem to other prisoners and was empowered by its message of self-mastery. The poem's last stanza was quoted by US President Barack Obama at the end of his speech at Nelson Mandela's memorial service (10 December 2013) in South Africa and published on the front cover of the 14 December 2013 issue of The Economist.

According to his sister, before becoming a civil rights leader, Congressman John Lewis used to recite the poem as a teenager and continued to refer to it for inspiration throughout his life. “Invictus” offers a variety of reflection questions such as:

  • Do you thank whatever gods may be for your unconquerable soul?

  • Have you winced or cried aloud due to circumstance?

  • If you head is bloody did you bow or raise it high?

  • As you approach death are you afraid?

  • How strait has your path in life been?

  • Do you remind yourself you are master of your fate and captain of your soul?

  • How often do you invoke the spirit of Invictus?