A number of years ago I ran across a call for scores put out by some choral ensemble or other, asking for settings of a poem by William Ernest Henley called “Invictus.” I gave it a good effort, and I’m still somewhat fond of some of the musical fragments that came from that effort, but eventually the overall theme of the poem dawned on me. It didn’t hit me when I first read it; perhaps I was naive. Here it is in full:
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.
In the first stanza Henley begins by declaring that his soul is “unconquerable,” and he thanks the gods for this (which ones, he knows not). He seems to be in anguish of some sort, referencing images of nighttime and darkness as states of being within which he exists. In the second stanza he continues to describe how valiantly he has acted, how incredibly steadfast he’s been, though chance and circumstance have clutched and bludgeoned him; still, his head is unbowed.
The third stanza is where it gets interesting. Henley describes what is “beyond this place of wrath and tears,” that is, the “Horror of the shade.” Presumably, he means the eternal darkness that awaits him when he dies, the empty non-existence that will finally conquer his unconquerable soul when last he breathes. Yet, in spite of what he knows will come, he says that he is unafraid. Why should he be afraid, with such an indomitable spirit as his? In the last stanza, Henley makes the statement that is perhaps most troubling of all: he directly references Jesus’ teaching on the strait and narrow gate, which leads to life, and says that it does not matter. Nor does it matter how many punishments the “scroll” contains. No, Henley gets to decide his fate. He is autonomous. He is the captain of his soul. No God in Heaven or devil in Hell will decide where or how he will spend his days, nor will there await him an eternity of either paradise or wrath. Henley is lord.
The poem troubled me then as it troubles me now. To what depths of despair must a human being sink, to what levels of hatred of God must a man descend, to pen such poetry? In attempting to set the poem, I had to be careful lest my own soul be swept up in the same anguish and torment. Ultimately, that is the reason I gave up. Surely, the poem is a work of art in its own right: the meter, the rhyme, the word choice, the scansion; it all works. But to what end?
It has been some time since I thought deeply about that poem, and for good reason. Today, however, I was reminded of it once again, only this time because of another poem. While thumbing through an anthology called Masterpieces of Religious Verse, my eyes rather randomly alighted upon a poem by Dorothea Day, a relatively unknown poet of the early 20th century, entitled, “The Captain.” In small print below the title, an explanatory note read, “After reading Henley’s Invictus.” What followed was, to me, one of the cleverest ways of dealing with Henley’s poem: rewriting it with its opposite meaning.
Out of the light that dazzles me,
Bright as the sun from pole to pole
I thank the God I know to be
For Christ—the Conqueror of my soul.
Since His the sway of circumstance
I would not wince, nor cry aloud.
Under that rule which men call chance,
My head, with joy, is humbly bowed.
Beyond this place of sin and tears,
That life with Him—and His the aid
That, spite the menace of the years,
Keeps, and will keep me, unafraid.
I have no fear though strait the gate:
He cleared from punishment the scroll.
Christ is the Master of my fate!
Christ is the Captain of my soul.
How sweet it is to submit to Christ! What blessings flow from being united to Him in faith, in recognizing that He is the sovereign one! He is the conqueror of our souls. He holds circumstance and chance in His palm. We await a day when we will see Him face to face and live in eternal bliss in His presence. And we need not fear any punishment, for Christ has taken it upon Himself for our sake, and for the sake of God’s glory.
William Ernest Henley has met his Maker, and I am almost certain that meeting did not end in Henley’s favor. Yet we as Christians can be assured that Christ, our mediator, is interceding on our behalf before the Father. We will see Him one day, whether that be in death or when He comes again. So take heart, and believe in Christ’s promises concerning you. Do not fall prey to the lie that says, “You control your destiny; you decide what’s right and wrong; you are the master of your fate.” For Christ will soon return to judge both the living and the dead; I pray that you will be counted among the righteous, and not among the scoffers.