Unconquerable or undefeated or never surrender or…Invictus

The following poem was translated by Aung San into Burmese and published in Oh Wai magazine with very famous consequences.

Actually translated by Nyo Mya but Aung San refused to reveal the author and was expelled from university

Source: “What is the meaning of the poem Invictus?”  in Answers.Com

Invictus, meaning “unconquerable” or “undefeated” in Latin, is a poem by  William Ernest Henley.

The poem was written while Henley was in the hospital  being treated for tuberculosis of the bone, also known as Pott’s disease. He had  had the disease since he was very young, and his foot had been amputated shortly  before he wrote the poem.

This poem is about courage in the face of death, and  holding on to one’s own dignity despite the indignities life places before us.

An analysis 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 first stanza the poem’s speaker prays in the  dark to “whatever gods may be” a prayer of thanks for his “unconquerable soul.”  Several things are apparent from the outset: First, the speaker is in some sort  of metaphorical darkness, perhaps the darkness of despair. Second, he does not  pray for strength, but gives thanks for the strength that he already has. Third,  he seems rather flippant about who he is or is not praying to; it is almost a  prayer to himself at this point, but not quite.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried  aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but  unbowed.

The seeming agnosticism of the first stanza  continues in the second. He does not talk about God‘s will or even fate; instead  he speaks of “the fell clutch of circumstance” and “the bludeonings of chance,”  and asserts that he has overcome these bravely and without complaint.

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.

The third stanza is about death and what a  trifle it seems to the speaker of the poem. This “place of wrath and tears”,  this life, it seems, is not full enough of pain and horror to frighten the  poem’s speaker. And death, “the Horror of the shade,” could not possibly worry  him, being an end to “wrath and tears”. Notice here that he is not concerned in  any way about an afterlife. Death is merely an end to suffering for our speaker.  Nothing of any concern seems to lie beyond for him until….

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.

The one line of this poem that seems to give people  the most trouble is this reference to a “strait gate”. “It matters not how  strait the gate” is either a reference to John Bunyan‘s tract The Strait  Gate, or Great Difficulty of Going to Heaven(1676), or the the scripture  Bunyan got his title from Matthew 7:13, 14.

“Enter ye in at the strait gate; for wide is the  gate,
and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction,
and  many there be which go in thereat:
because strait is the gate, and  narrow is the way,
which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find  it.”

The poet William Ernest Henley would likely have  been familiar with one or both of these sources. So we can read the stanza as an  acceptance of whatever judgement or doom death may bring. He accepts no master  but himself. He bows to no authority. He is his own god, guide and judge. He is  the Captain.

(Henley was a lifelong atheist, and, with his missing leg  and braggadocio, he was also the inspiration for the character of Long John  Silver in Robert Louis Stephenson‘s Treasure Island, a Captain indeed.)

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