Though he became famous for writing several books of poetry, William Ernest Henley is remembered most for his 1875 poem “Invictus” .

A favourite of my own mentor, Bob Proctor, it has become one of mine too after both studying and teaching from it over the last few years.

Literally translated from the Latin word, invictus means ‘unconquerable’ and the poem is often recited during times where stoicism, courage and refusing to accept defeat are needed.

Nelson Mandela is known to have recited the piece to other prisoners incarcerated alongside him at Robben Island, some believe because it expressed in its message of self-mastery

Having contracted tuberculosis of the bone in his youth, William Henley had endured the amputation of the lower part of one of his legs in his twenties.

The early years of Henley’s life were punctuated by periods of extreme pain due to the draining of his tuberculosis abscesses and yet Henley’s younger brother Joseph recalled how after draining his joints the young Henley would “Hop about the room, laughing loudly and playing with zest to pretend he was beyond the reach of pain”.

In fact, in a letter to Henley after the publication of Treasure Island (1883), Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, “I will now make a confession: It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver … the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you.”

Frequent illness often kept Henley away from school, and yet in 1867, he passed the Oxford Local Schools Examination and went on to receive an LLD degree from the University of St Andrews;

“Invictus” was written during one of Henley’s periods of isolation through illness and is a reminder of the strength and reilience that exists within every one of us.


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


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