Part I: Statement in Poetry
Part II: External Evidence
Part III: Scansion
(This article should probably be first, not fourth, which is what happens when you embark on a series without any idea where you’re going.)

There are, fundamentally, two ways to read a poem: privately or publicly. A popular but bad poem best illustrates the difference. Since I have an especially persistent correspondent defending it, W.E. Henley’s “Invictus” will serve:

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.

Let’s look at this poem closely. In the first stanza, why would night, a normal enough event, inspire the poet to give thanks for his unconquerable soul? The night may be metaphoric — one hopes so, since literal night is never black from pole to pole unless you’re sleeping in a tent — but still, one wonders, what is the trouble exactly?

In the second stanza we have the cliché “fell clutch.” “Winced nor” is both unnecessary and impossible to pronounce. Chance, not usually very thuggish, more a burglar than an armed robber, appears in the next line to do some bludgeoning, of all things. The last line is deservedly famous and is by far the best line in the poem.

The third stanza confronts us with “place of wrath and tears” as if the contemporaneous “vale of tears” weren’t bad enough. “[T]he Horror of the shade” or a phrase very like it appears in every third poem of the period.

The last stanza introduces the customary Heavenly machinery of gate, punishment and scroll. The poet, who is agnostic (“whatever gods may be”), imagines the afterlife as a possibility, and then asserts, curiously, in the famous close, that he is the master of his fate and captain of his soul regardless. Yet this surely depends on whether this imagined afterlife is real. I don’t think so, but the poet, on the evidence, isn’t sure.

“Invictus” is a bad poem, bad in detail and bad in execution, with one excellent and two other memorable lines. It is bad chiefly because motive is ill-adjusted to emotion. The poet is considerably wrought up about his unconquerable soul and defiant attitude, but he never provides a motive for this emotion, beyond some vague allusions to night, circumstance, chance, and the fact of his mortality. I am unconvinced by the phrase “the place of wrath and tears” that this world is so awful to inhabit. The reader who enjoys this poem supplies his own motive. Many readers are willing to do so, and the pleasure that they take in this poem is genuine. Popular poems are frequently on the “Invictus” model: they contain a couple of famous lines and a lot of unspecified motive for the reader to fill in. Yeats’s “The Second Coming”, Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” and MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica” are all of this type.

The reader who enjoys this sort of poetry indulges in a private reading. He is interested in his own feelings, not what is written on the page. Those feelings may be profound, but they have nothing to do with the poem. Suppose the first time you kissed a girl was at a junior high school dance and the band was playing “Desperado.” Now “Desperado” is your favorite song, God help you, for reasons that have nothing to do with any actual merits it may possess. Same thing here.

When you insist on a public reading, on restricting yourself to what’s on the page, you sacrifice a certain amount of immediate warmth and sympathy, a visceral appreciation for poems like “Invictus,” for the ability to enter completely into greater minds than your own, operating at their peak. You sacrifice heat for cold. It’s worth it.

Aaron Haspel | Posted February 5, 2003 @ 11:31 PM | Poetry

43 Responses to “How to Read a Poem IV: Public and Private Reading”

  1. 1 1. Eddie Thomas

    Excellent, truly excellent.


  2. 2 2. James Valliant

    The mere existence of an afterlife, by itself, does not contradict the idea of self-determination and autonomy. (The existence of a Creator-God who engages in predestination, would, but Henley gives that no consideration.) Indeed, in the traditional Christian world-view, it is our choice of the two afterlifes–heaven or hell–which is the ONLY sense in which we are "masters of our destinies." But the possibility of an afterlife in no way contradicts either that choice or the more comprehensive "mastery" Henley argues for.


  3. 3 3. Aaron Haspel

    The machinery Henley invokes is specifically Christian. One can fairly conclude that it is, indeed, the Christian God, a "Creator-God who engages in predestination," and the Christian idea of Heaven and Hell that he is considering. These ideas do indeed invalidate "comprehensive mastery." But logic is not our poet’s strong suit.


  4. 4 4. Michael Krantz

    Did you purposely invoke ‘Desperado’ in a post about a poem by a guy named Henley? At any rate, it’s a good song; "Color My World" would have been a better choice for the context.


  5. 5 5. Aaron Haspel

    I am embarrassed to say Don Henley never occurred to me. The point, in any case, is that the evaluation of "Desperado" has nothing to do with its merits.


  6. 6 6. James Valliant

    No, no, no. Henley is, as you point out, an agnostic. He is not entertaining or invoking the concept of Predestination in any way. He is saying that the existence of an afterlife wouldn’t matter to his self-mastery here and now. In any event, even the belief in predestination is not universal among Christian sects. Not even assuming a standard Christian world-view implies THAT kind of determinism, Aaron!! The controversy of predestination or determinism is not invoked by mentioning an afterlife. Free will may continue unaffected in the next dimension, and, in getting there, we are being given more options than when first came into the world. Geez!! Talk about
    importing your own ideology into a poem!! There is no contradiction implied in Henley, but a crude misread by Haspel.


  7. 7 7. Aaron Haspel

    How can the situation of the first two lines of the final stanza can provoke the evaluation of the last two? In this poem Henley, though agnostic, entertains not just theism, but Christianity, as conceivably true: the imagery is very Christian. He imagines himself on the verge of the Christian afterlife, going either to Heaven or Hell, and, at this point, avers, regardless, that he is captain of his "soul," another Christian word, when in all reasonably orthodox varieties of Christianity it is God who has final dispensation in the matter. I cannot be the only reader who finds this peculiar. The question of free will in Heaven or Hell, when one has already been sentenced and confined for eternity, strikes me as rather beside the point.


  8. 8 8. James Valliant

    Moreover, Henley’s position would only contradict a determinist religious outlook if Henley himself even appeared to believe in much free will in the first place. We find him "in the fell clutch of circumstance" from the outset and his "unconquerable soul" is not being credited with any improvements of the situation. No, being "master of his fate" means one very specific thing, namely, being the "captain of his soul." This is consistent with his modest claims of mastery which are all psychological in nature: he does not "wince" or "cry aloud," his head is "bloody but unbowed," and, later, he is "unafraid." No, his state may be totally "determined"–even "predetermined." He is saying that "ultimate consequences" don’t really matter. Henley is only claiming "an unconquered soul," not that volition is efficacious. The most he claims to have managed is an internal response to circumstances, one of great pride and endurance, that is his own–whatever such circumstances were or may ever be. He is saying that this is emotionally satisfying, sufficient.


  9. 9 9. James Valliant

    That’s just what he’s saying: the metaphorical night that covers the author is blacker than any of the literal nights that you have ever seen. That’s what that first line means. "No matter how dark things are…" first idea; "…of my own soul I am still master" –last idea. The specific motive is blacker than any concrete experience, the possibility of the Pearly Gates or the Hades of Homer.


  10. 10 10. MOM

    I agree that Invictus is a bad poem, but I think Jim is right that it doesn’t contradict itself. Henley is thumbing his nose at the possibility of the afterlife. He’s chosen the alternative to Pascal’s wager, which I’m sure he considered a species of pusillanimous weaseling. Pascal was certainly a greater man, but I have to side with Henley on this one.


  11. 11 11. Howard Owens

    Aaron writes, "in all reasonably orthodox varieties of Christianity it is God who has final dispensation in the matter"

    Um, no.

    That is certainly not true of Evangelical Christianity, and I don’t believe it is true of Fundamental Christianity either (though I am more familiar with Evangelical doctrine).

    The final decision about heaven and hell is not God’s, it is the individual’s, because on the individual chooses to accept or reject God/Jesus. It is totally a free-will decision.

    I am a Christian. I will go to heaven. I am captain of my soul. I made that decision. And I make my own decisions every day. I am entirely a free agent.

    Thank God.

    Otherwise, loved the post and the comments.


  12. 12 12. Aaron Haspel

    Howard: Since reconciling an omniscient being with human volition was the chief problem of 19th century American literature, we’re not going to straighten it out in this comment thread. Let’s just say the answer is not obvious, or at least it wasn’t to Melville or Hawthorne.

    Jim (and hi Mom, thanks for the support!): I think it’s true that Henley does not contradict himself, as I implied, in the last stanza. Yet what we are left with, if we accept your acute analysis of the psychological situation, is a ringing but inefficacious affirmation. A better poem would acknowledge and evaluate the problem.


  13. 13 13. Errata

    Poems often make interesting Rorschach tests after a fashion.

    Is it only the God who keeps scrolls with punishments? Actually I don’t recall lists of punishments being maintained by God in Judeo Christian lore.

    We see in the above analysis more about the individuals reading the poem than the author himself. This is often the case.

    Conclude whatever you want, make whatever you wish out of the poem. Once it transcends beyond linguistic mechanics, one is in their own self created universe, unless they have documentation from elsewhere in the authors to corroborate.

    As to this poem, it is the poem of a Man who declares that he is independent of the horror and wrongness he perceives of the universe around him, and is not nor will he be subject to it.

    Go see the movie Rob Roy if the meaning of this poem eludes you. Substitute Honor for Soul in the movie… should explain nicely.

    Then again I only know what Zuul has told me 😉


  14. 14 14. dan

    Interesting commentary on Invictus. I’d throw in more gripes. That last line of the first stanza is bad formally. I find his overall use of meter good, but here it slips to limp. Unconquerable doesn’t want to take two stresses, the tendency is to swallow the last syllables, and the line comes off weak. That would be appropriate if it were ironic, but I can’t see it.

    And we sure don’t accept things as abstract as this is as good poetry today. That’s one way I find it hard to lump this one in with those others you mentioned, the Frost, Yeats, and… well, MacLeish probably deserves the company. (I’m trying to remember which that is, not being at all a fan of his.)

    On a related note I’ve argued in the past that poems have to work ‘on the page’ (as it were) as well as in public performance before they can be considered good. Too many times the emotion poured into a poem when it’s read aloud, especially in performance by the poet, carries weight that the words don’t support. I first made this argument about song lyrics as poetry. A friend insisted Guthrie’s lyrics were great poetry. I had him write them down, then dissected them. He decided the music did add a lot.


  15. 15 15. Tyr

    I have read many reviews of Invictus, and like yours they were all superficial. I have come to the conclusion that you can either read and understand Invictus, or you cannot. It is impossible to explain the complexities of a spirit that cannot be broken, but if one should want to try, I would recommend Nietzsche.

    As for Invictus itself, The Night is the situation he is in, the specifics are irrelevant other than it is unpleasant, to say the least. "Gods" is a figure of speech, nothing more.

    The second stanza is the stiff upper lip. The third stanza in the most interesting. He’s saying that the place you are in may be bad, but so if everywhere else. Deal with it.

    As for the last stanza, Henley is showing his defiance for God/Fate/whatever other divine power has it in for him. To put it in a modern way, Henley simply shouts "Bring it on!"

    Those of you who cannot comprehend such a man, ignore this. Don’t bother writing back, I won’t return. But those of you who know what it is to be unconquerable, take solace in the fact that you are not alone. Not that you ever needed, nor asked for solace.


  16. 16 16. frank bausch

    Martin Booth on page 188 of "The Industry of Souls" St. Martins Press 1999 has his characater Shurik muse on the last four lines of Invictus. Shurik can’t remember the whole poem or even the author but in the context of his gulag mining experience, black/night/dark take on a very real and terrifying meaning of helplessness. His acceptance of it seems to make good sense of his dogged survivability bent. While on the whole, it may be a bad poem, the poem’s imagery of an indistinguishable spirit rings true in the novel as Shurik tries to better undertand why he survived. And I think the concept is a very Christian one even if it is not an orthodox understanding of God’s power or the possibility of an afterlife. The idea is more in line with Kushner’s "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" appreciation of the real world and how we should respond to it.


  17. 17 17. Aaron Haspel

    Chetly and Tyr, I’m afraid, illustrate my point. They like the poem because they sympathize so profoundly with its theme which despite their assertions is impossible to miss that they supply their own motive and overlook obviously bad writing. Good poetry does not merely make ringing declarations: it adjusts motive to emotion, and this is what Henley fails to do.


  18. 18 18. Chetly Zarko

    I have to agree with Tyr here.

    This poem is about the randomness of life and the universe, and the author’s agnostic thankfulness of his propensity to be able to overcome the harshness of this fate with his own attitude. The last and most famous line of the poem is merely the crescendo to this single, dramatic thought that the entire poem describes.

    The author was, of course, way ahead of his time, as is continuingly evidenced by this blog entry.

    How can a "work of art" or any other work be "bad" if it effectively conveys its point, even if disagreed with or disliked, to its audience? Invictus does that — though people still disagree with it.


  19. 19 19. Chetly Zarko

    I think you are confusing the definition of "good writing" with "good poetry." I might grant you your form and style points on the latter, but good writing is that strictly which effectively conveys its points.

    Back to the original point of the blog though, that some art might be inherently better than other art even if two people perceive it equally as great. The analogy was between Chopin and Black Sabbath, and the reasoning is that Chopin’s work has "greater internal potential" for those people who have grown to appreciate it. Why must the growth be in the direction of Chopin’s work (although many would agree that is greater). Although I’m pretty much an objectivist on most issues; when it comes to the value of art, I must defer to subjectivism. Value of this type is an inherently subjective thing; unless you apply some theory of "natural law" to artwork; something I’m willing to do for prinicples of morality but not for gradations of taste. Why "good poetry" has to fit into one form or another baffles me. I will admit that both good writing and poetry are often created by properly casting emotion to meet the persuasive goal; but likewise, some great pieces have been devoid of emotion and great pieces because of airtight logic.

    In this sense, Black Sabbath has no less merit or even "potential" than Chopin; since all of either piece’s potential is locked within the individual perceiving it. Indeed, one could envision a world much akin to the future portrayed in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, where Black Sabbath’s art took on near religious value while Chopin was relegated to obscurity. I wouldn’t like such a world; but it does make for interesting immature comedy.


  20. 20 20. Aaron Haspel

    "Effectively" of course begs the question. The dispute is precisely over how "effective" the poem is. I argue that the poem is ineffective because its emotion is improperly motivated, because Henley makes bald assertions about "this place of wrath and tears" and "the menace of the years" and leaves the reader to fill them in. Some readers, like you, are happy to do so; other readers, like me, think the poet should not shirk his obligations and that readers like you are reading your own minds instead of the poem.

    These phrases, and others I point out in the piece, such as "fell clutch of circumstance," are bad writing, bad poetry bad, period. Pound said that poetry should be at least as well-written as prose. Does this sound like good prose to you?

    Neither are these mere "form and style points," as if form and style could be disentangled from matter in that fashion. One useful heuristic for evaluating a poem is to paraphrase it, then estimate the margin of meaning that is lost in the paraphrase. That margin is, in one sense, the poem. In Invictus it is very small.

    You say on the one hand that art is subjective (then why defend Invictus?) and on the other you resort to evaluative terms to discuss it, like "good," "great," and "effective." If we are locked inside our individual consciousnesses forever and the experience of art is mere solipsism, then why discuss it? For that matter, why create it?


  21. 21 21. Chetly Zarko

    Actually, a contemporary and relatively obscure songwriter once told me that the purposes of his songs lyrics are quite often intentionally left to the listener, for the very sound reason that he often wants the listener to use his own imagery.

    Good art isn’t necessarily accurate or precise. Witness the impressionist movement, or the various modern movements that lack any relational descriptiveness to reality. Indeed, the world isn’t always very precise (quantum mechanics). Why should a poet have to, an artist of prose, have to be? Observation depends on the observer and the observed?

    I do agree that "fell clutch of circumstance" is overwrought; but to tear down the whole poem on that? (of course, you call your other two questionable lines "bald assertions," which is an admission that Henley is "asserting" something specific and concrete, for were it not; then your own prose here would be imprecise)

    On the hand, I am not a "subjectivist" in any sense of the word, and I do believe there is a discreet reality that one can attempt to model or approximate. But that doesn’t mean that every written word, or for that matter, mental activity; need correspond to the reality. I do believe that beauty is innately appreciated by most minds because it represents some truth about reality; so to the extent that I appreciate this poem I am making an implicit leap that it models reality or represents some truth. I’m not defending the poem though; it is not something that by definition can be defended; although an opinion of it can be held.


  22. 22 22. Student

    I personally like the poem, but I believe that most poetry is subjective. (I say most because works by some authors, like Shakespeare, became so universally applauded that the opinion that they are good becomes fact.)

    I don’t think you can say the poem is bad poetry, but I think you can say you don’t like it. I think the poem’s word choice and form are not only acceptable, but perhaps praiseworthy. But who am I to say this? Well, who are you?

    Subjectivism.

    Another point you made was that you said that the only people who enjoy this poem "indulges in private reading." I don’t think you can assume to know why someone appreciates the poem. I enjoyed it and didn’t relate it to my life, but rather focused on what was written.

    Subjectivism. Poetry is written with emotion and read with emotion, whether positive or negative.


  23. 23 23. Aaron Haspel

    Chetly: If the dead could talk the impressionists would rise up in chorus to protest your characterization of their methods as deliberate inaccuracy and imprecision. I haven’t much use for Monet’s haystacks, but he was trying to convey something extremely precise, the fall of light, that he could not convey by other methods. I maintain that exactness is always better than inexactness, but this is slippery, as it is often unclear just what aspect of reality the artist is trying to capture. Evaluation is a tricky business, but to conclude that it is therefore impossible is just to throw up your hands.

    You have continued to indulge in terminology to which, on your view, you are not entitled, like "good," "excellent," and "overwrought." I hate to insist, but these are evaluative, they are judgments, and anyone who maintains that aesthetic value is "inherently subjective" cannot use them without contradicting himself. At one point in your last post you qualify this position, claiming that Invictus "models reality or represents some truth," but then in the next sentence you take it back again, saying that any remarks about the poem are mere "opinion." What’s it gonna be?

    Student: 50,000,000 Shakespeare fans can’t be wrong, eh? Was Shakespeare a bad poet in the early 18th century, when no one liked him? Was Donne a worse poet in 1850 than in 1950? If consensus is the only criterion, how do we deal with the inconvenient fact that consensus changes, while the art remains the same?


  24. 24 24. sean

    does anyone know anymore allusions from the William Ernest Henley poem “invictus” if you do it would be greatly appriciated if you could send me them.


  25. 25 25. Tim

    So I read through this thread, for all the intellectual jingo jango I heard, how is it possible that you can be so pompous? Publicly, it’s still a great poem. What circumstances was he in that were so dire? How about that he had his leg cut off when he was very young and they thought he would die extremly young. Instead of being down and out and wallowing in self pity, he got a pretty shitty prosthetic leg and lived a productive and active life to age 50 something. The poem is about Henley never letting himself indulge the feelings of helplessness that would certainly overwhelm many people. Publicly this is better than most of the poems that one of you pointed out are so similar, because it’s personal to him. He didn’t write this for his audience to interpret. He wrote it for himself.


  26. 26 26. David Fales

    Aaron, I simply have no choice but to conclude that not only are you smug, arrogant and whiny but you have little if any common sense. Moreover, your need to sound intelligent is probably only surpassed by the fact that you are not. Why don’t you stop being an alligator (you know, all mouth and no ears!), stop boring us with your infantile platitudes, and play student for a change.

    Invictus is as simple as a sunrise.

    A man, like any other man, comes to the realization that all that has befallen him is not going to tear him down any longer. He has found some new strength (from where is unimportant). He decides to accept life as simply that – LIFE.

    The bonus here is there probably have been countless individuals that have garnered hope and strength from Henley’s piece and are now living a more joyous life.

    Aaron, go back to school; start with the basics like “See Spot Run”, and maybe you too can give something useful to mankind.


  27. 27 27. Abigail Maxwell

    I like your last paragraph, but consider that it is a matter of seeking different things from different poetry.

    So, I stub my toe, and do not crash out, bewailing my fate, I just get on with life. Or, I lose both legs in a freak accident, ditto.

    This private poem is strong on “pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again” which is a good rule for life. It does not describe why the writer feels the need to say that. I do not think that it needs to.

    Most people have spent at least some time conquered, lying down, bewailing fate, and have felt just pride when they get up again, and so relate to the poem.

    I appreciate the value of other poetry which could bear a more public reading in your terminology, but do not agree that its lack in Invictus by itself makes Invictus a bad poem.


  28. 28 28. Cassie Cullen

    this is awful. who are you anyway to say that invictus is not a good poem? terrible really.


  29. 29 29. Sweetie

    I think this is am amazing poem! The way I see the theme makes it seem even better.


  30. 30 30. Judith Britten

    All I know is that I owe it to Invictus that I speak fluently and properly. Invictus was THE PIECE in our speech laboratory in high school and I owe it to this piece the way I now speak and express myself.

    Stop dissecting it. Just use it when you cannot express yourself. Invictus represents the “groanings” of the spirit when no words could fully verbalise what’s in your heart.


  31. 31 31. Zailani Mahmud

    Invictus is indeed a beautiful poem. It has been quoted again and again by innumerable many, for more than a century, as a source of spiritual strength and self mastery. It has been declaimed by poets at their literature functions as well as by school children and university students.

    “Out of the night that covers me,
    Black as the Pit from pole to pole”

    In retrospect, the poet viewed his life as being torturing, unpleasant one. The pains were unbearable, and there was no way out, as yet. He was covered by the ill circumstances, beyond his means of getting out.

    “I thank whatever gods may be
    For my unconquerable soul”

    He thanked the gods, the deities, the angels, or whatever they may be, that were kind enough to help him going through the trying moments. With the help of those inspiring godsend heavenly beings, he was able to maintain his steadfastness and his belief in his own self. Clearly, it was an admission that he was not enlightened enough by God Almighty, to positively know the types of those heavenly beings that helped him, but he was grateful, and thanked them nevertheless. The spiritual strength possessed by the poet is typical in the cases of all those great people throughout the history of mankind. Whilst the belief in the self is very much sought and maintained, the spiritual sources for its strength are no doubt coming from God Almighty via the angels and other heavenly beings. In modern psychology, this is the subconscious mind, the psyche, galvanised by the belief in one God.

    “In the fell clutch of circumstance
    I have not winced nor cried aloud”

    He was subjected by fate, by the orders from above, to the sufferings caused by the unforgiving circumstance. So be it, he did not lose his faith in his own self, in the happiness that awaited him from afar. This has given him the strength to endure all the painful tortures of the circumstance that he was subjected to. Thus, he did not complain of his condition, he did not show the pain he had to bear and he kept it deep down under, to himself; for he knew the virtue of patience. He knew that the night would be replaced by dawn soon. And the suffering, the happiness.

    “Under the bludgeonings of chance
    My head is bloody, but unbowed”

    As a human being, the poet was subjected to the rule of nature. He felt the pain caused by the ill fate. The painful blow inflicted on him was unpredicted; it was ordained from above. In his full awareness and humility, he recognised his limitations, but he strived to thrive. And he refused to be the victim of the circumstance, because he believed in himself and in his ability to cure his heart wound.

    “Beyond this place of wrath and tears
    Looms but the Horror of the shade”

    He was aware that the patiently waited happiness was far from him. After the near pain, there would be another awaiting.

    “And yet the menace of the years
    Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.”

    Albeit the strings of sufferings; one after another, he was ready to face the reality. And he would just face it, come what may.

    “It matters not how strait the gate,
    How charged with punishments the scroll”

    He would continue his journey, towards the happiness, no matter what the tribulations were there along the way. The horror of the strait gate of hell, served him as a motivation in search of the gate of paradise. The road to happiness is indeed a narrow one. Not many can pass through it. In striving for a better life, he would just ignore the possibilities of more pains. No matter what the unfair world had in stock for him. It was all said in metaphors. The gate, the scroll, the punishments; are all metaphorically describing the trials and tribulations suffered, and also those awaited him.

    “I am the master of my fate:
    I am the captain of my soul”

    In his determination to continue living and fight against the odds toward a better life and the eventual happiness, he planned his way through. He was ready to steer his life. At the same time, he put all the efforts to be true to himself and did not let the oddity of the circumstance to weaken his soul.


  32. 32 32. Peter

    Recently, I was inspired to write the following in response to Henley’s Invictus:

    Victus

    after Invictus (by William Ernest Henley)

    Out of the night that covered me,
    beyond the pit that claimed me whole,
    I thank The God who lives eternally
    that He has freed my conquered soul.

    Beneath fell weight of God’s just vow,
    my heart in fearful torment fled;
    but He bore my curse upon His brow.
    I am reclaimed, for me He bled!

    Beyond this place of wrath and tears
    loomed death; the horror of the shade.
    Thank God He carried all my fears!
    In His love I am unafraid.

    It matters not how strait His gate,
    how charged with punishments His scroll;
    His love has saved me from my fate;
    He is redeemer of my soul.


  33. 33 33. Dalton

    I have really learned much about this poem now. The critic has taught much about insight.


  34. 34 34. Alexander

    Perhaps the author of Invictus wanted to express his feelings regarding his infirmity, as surely he saw himself with the use of both legs, as opposed to just the one … Without displaying self-pity …


  35. 35 35. Jan F.

    Perhaps this poem is not entirely structurally sound or lacks a greater uses of syntax. The critique may have its place but does not entirely disqualify the poet or poem. As the comparison to “desperado” fails to recognize that the ability of the poem to harvest those true and raw motion is an accomplishment in itself. Perhaps the purpose of this poem was to do exactly that.


  36. 36 36. jamie

    why?
    why did you kiss her???
    that was suppose to be MY kiss…
    OUR kiss
    i loved you so much
    you were my sun,my moon, my everything….
    baby… just tell me why
    what did i do??? what else did you need from me???
    i gave you my heart and you gave me pain
    i gave you my soul and you gave me tears
    i just wanna know why….???


  37. 37 37. Bob Binaryt

    What the hell? You begin by saying that using night is stupid. What has n ight ever done. Maybe its a metaphore…moving on. Yes it’s a metaphore. Night as a metaphore for harder times, surrounded by darkness is so common it almost isn’t a metaphore anymore. Its more of another meaning for the word. Literly everything you said is wrong. Saying whatever gods may be doesn’t suggest that he necessarly believes the non-existance of god/ a soul ius possable. Juses your a pretientious pedantic prick.


  38. 38 38. Mark

    “exactness is always better than inexactness”

    To know your fate, deny a fact
    The moment will not wait
    To know in fact, deny your fate
    The option is to act

    To act on fact, deny your fate
    The future is intact
    To act on fate, deny the fact
    The moment did not wait


  39. 39 39. izzi roll

    you guys are stupid. “out of the night that covers me, black as the pit from pole to pole” simply means ” out of the darkness that he is covered with” so he probably did something bad. the two poles hes talking about are the north and south poles, so its darker than whatevers between north and south pole aka hell. then hes basically just giving thanks to the gods if theyre are any for his powerful control over his soul. “in the fell clutch of circumstance” means in the fierce control or power of circumstance. then he says that he has not broken down into sadness. “under the bludgeonings of chance ” means under the beatings of the mistfortune(chance) his head is bloody(metaphorically speaking) but unbowed which means he hasnt given up or surrendered. since he has gone through bad times he calls this place “land of wrath and tears” looms also can mean lurk. the Horror of the shade reffers to hades or the devil which is why horror is capitalized. “and yet the menace of the years finds and shall find me unafraid mean that the devil does not and will not ever scare him
    and then he talks about no matter how certain it is where he is going in the afterlife because of how many bad things he might of done he is the master of his fate the captain of his soul. geez just break the poem down word by word youll understand once you do.


  40. 40 40. patricia

    i think the poor guy is just expressing what it means to have half of his leg amputated. he uses phrases to describe what he is feeling in that moment and letting his life know he is not going to surrender!!


  41. 41 41. Doug

    “Culling my readers to a manageable elite” – that tells me all I need to know about you. What a pompous ass. But a least you are consistent; you even end your backward, misguided analysis of this inspirational poem by trying to find fault with Yeats, MacLeish and Frost. FROST! YEATS! Seriously!

    I can only hope you are not a registered teacher and merely play one on your webpage (and in your mind). Children are more likely to believe such narrow mindedness wherein an educated adult can see right through self indulgent diatribe.

    When I first read your ramblings I was angered, but as I continued I felt truly sorry for you. You are missing out on the beauty and inspiration that a gifted wordsmith can share with all who might read his or her work. Although I believe the following will be lost on you, I can only hope that the few readers who happen upon this page might take a moment to read more about this poem and its background:

    William Henley contracted tuberculosis of the bone and physicians said that the only way to save his life was to amputate directly below his knee. It was amputated when he was 17. Shortly afterwards he was told his second leg would have to be removed. He refused to do this and instead went through multiple surgeries and endured years in the hospital. In the end, he saved his leg. Stoicism inspired him to write this poem while in the hospital. Despite his disability, he survived with one leg intact and became one of the great poets of history.

    The poem was written in 1875 in a book called Book of Verses, where it was number four in several poems called Life and Death. At the beginning it bore no title. The title “Invictus” (Latin for “unconquered” was added in later years).

    The first stanza depicts the speaker at night, in reflection. The poles referenced in the second line, the North and South poles, frame the entire world in a darkness, which is like that of a pit (not simply a hole: a place of incarceration; death; Hell, a frequent interpretation of the word in the 19th century). The way in which the speaker appears repeatedly, in the contorted syntax of the first stanza, draws emphasis to the emergence of the soul from darkness. Finally, in the first stanza, the speaker refers to “whatever gods may be”, which may be taken as agnosticism, paganism, or even some bewilderment on the nature, rather than the identity, of the divine (i.e. “what are gods; not who?”).

    Circumstance is personified in the second stanza, described by the adjective “fell” which means “deadly” or “cruel,” as a predator. Again, the speaker is described in a state of arrest; as in a pit. Bludgeoning has the definition of being beaten or forced down, deriving from a club like weapon often employed by the police, and its use supports the theme of captivity. “Chance,” like “circumstance,” is rendered as a powerful, oppressive force and yet the speaker refuses to bow his head or to be ruled by it.

    In the third stanza, the speaker refers to death as “shade,” beyond a place of wrath and tears, a description which belittles it in contrast to “wrath” and the pit imagery of the first stanza. Again here death is personified, the active subject, which finds the speaker, who is defined by his stoicism, his unalterable resolve to be unafraid of “Horror.”

    This last stanza concludes the speaker’s reflection, continuing the themes already established, abstracting a declaration from the reflection described in the earlier stanzas and including several references to Christian doctrine around the afterlife[citation needed]. Again, here we have references to punishment and constriction. “Strait” in the first line of the stanza means “narrow,” and the image of a gate implies captivity or impasse, but yet these two words also imply the possibility of passing; the entrance to Heaven is often described as a narrow gate. The scroll of punishments is likely a reference to the divine penalties or trials assigned to the poet by God. It could also be taken as a play on ‘straight the gait’ in reference to his health problems, which had cost him one of his legs.


  42. 42 42. Literate poetry reader

    Wow! Never have i read such a silly critique. Whole sentences applied to this simple use of night? It is a moving bit of emotional song, and you are unbelievably unqualified to damn it. I like it so much better after hearing your assinine opinion.


  43. 43 43. Einar Gunnar Einarsson

    I’m a simple guy.
    I like something. Or I don’t like it.
    As to why, or why not, is irrelevant.
    I feel no compunction to bring you to my way of experiencing something.
    As far as art goes, there is no absolute truth, only opinion.
    That’s right, folks. Only opinion. No one person, or a group of persons, has the authority to tell you how to perceive anything.
    As for this: “Suppose the first time you kissed a girl was at a junior high school dance and the band was playing “Desperado.” Now “Desperado” is your favorite song, God help you, for reasons that have nothing to do with any actual merits it may possess. Same thing here.”
    Yeah, so?
    And what’s God got with it?


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