by William Ernest Henley
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, often cited as an example of the power and ‘virtue’ of self-determination, expresses a worldview that is fairly popular in our time. It is a worldview based on the deceptive lie that each individual is his own highest authority. It precludes both accountability to and humility before an all-powerful God. It exalts rebellion against God by elevating pride of self to the utmost praise.
The first stanza declares, “my unconquerable soul”. So, where did this unconquerable soul come from? Who made it? None of that matters to the speaker. He simply finds himself in time and space and has the hubris to think of himself as a self-made man. He credits his soul as unconquerable, and takes the credit for himself.
He is surrounded by darkness. Why is that? Christians believe they are surrounded by light. John 1:4-5 says, “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” 1 John 1:7 says, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” Yet the speaker is woefully unaware of this reality.
On the opposite side from life, this poem describes the world as a ‘night’, “black as the Pit from pole to pole”. The speaker does not see himself in light at all, nor does he acknowledge that light even exists or that he has the option of seeking light. He gives credit to “whatever gods may be” for the fact that in this world of darkness, he has only himself to depend on. This is the essence of agnostic noncommittal: giving lip service to the possibility of some undefined greater causal factor than the self, without any obligation to define what that may mean in the real world.
The tenor of this poem is one of self-dependent defiance. The second stanza speaks of “the fell clutch of circumstance” without any regard to cause and effect, or the principle that for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction, or the wisdom in learning that every act, decision and choice we make in life has consequences. It presents “circumstance” as a disembodied force randomly brutalizing its victims. The speaker of the poem has been wounded by “bludgeonings of chance”. To him, there is no reason for his suffering, and the only thing he takes away from his suffering is the pride of having stubbornly survived.
Surviving circumstances ignores the virtues of setting standards, goals, ethics, purpose or sharing anything with anyone. No relationship, no interaction other than that which is vaguely implied by “circumstance”, no loyalty to any group or any other social context is mentioned. Rather, it ennobles the survival of a lone warrior, not for any principle he has defended or for any foes he has vanquished – just that he has survived. It also ignores the future, for there is no promise of reward beyond a wounded, bloodied state.
The third stanza underscores the hopelessness of the speaker. His life now is characterized as wrath and tears, something we would normally hope to get beyond. For hope is what carries us through our struggles – hope for something better. This poem has no hope: “Beyond this place of wrath and tears Looms but the Horror of the shade”. Instead, of hope, the speaker defiantly tries to shake off despair by telling himself he is not afraid.
As honest as such a claim must be, it comes more from bravado than from a justified reason not to fear. The writer’s bravery was genuine, but in this poem, it is truncated from any context. His reason for being brave is not explained. It therefore gives his sentiment a two-dimensional feel. Why is he not afraid? Surely a reason must exist, but he does not provide one.
Nothing from the text gives a substantial reason for the speaker’s point of view, other than what might just be a passing mood. An existence described as “the menace of the years” without any anticipated reprieve — just “the Horror of the shade” — could only produce emptiness and despair. But despite this, the speaker is unafraid.
And yet, the final stanza admits that some authority, whether a person, group, nation or code, has made charges of wrongdoing, for which punishment is due (“How charged with punishments the scroll”). However, the speaker denies any accountability to such charges. His denial isn’t based on reason or hope, but on a sort of stubborn madness, which leads him to his ultimate delusion: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”
If this were not a delusion, as master, he might give himself a better fate — a fate that involved getting out of the black pit he finds himself in and bringing himself into a place of light. As captain, he might marshal his forces and destroy the Horror, so that it would be no more. But these possibilities are not mentioned, nor are they even implied. The only “victory” of the speaker is that he refuses to bow his head, his control, his self.
While hyperbole is understandable in the context of poetic expression, it makes a poor justification for what is essentially the main point of this poem. The reality is that no one is the master of their fate nor the captain of their soul. Thinking it is so does not make it so. Yes, there are those who take responsibility for their lives, those who create their own opportunities, those who do not blame others for their lack of success. But eventually, everyone answers to some higher authority.
Anyone who claims to be the master of their fate, the captain of their soul is simply denying reality. If they believe that delusion, they are deceived. If they are trying to put on a strong front, they are lying. Ultimately, this means they deny the existence of a God to whom they will be held accountable.
Invictus places Self upon a pedestal. It is a godless credo that speaks of a type of human inspiration that rebels against the authority and standard of the Creator. In a word, it is pride — the very thing that leads to sin and separation from God.