“My Unconquerable Soul”

Sonia Tsuruoka analyzes William Ernest Henley’s famous poem “Invictus.” Originally written about Henley’s battle with tuberculosis, the poem now serves as “something of an intellectual heirloom for activists beating back the tides of institutionalized oppression”:

“Invictus” isn’t a political poem in the usual sense: it’s meditative rather than militant, assuming the quietness of a prayer rather than the pomp and circumstance of a battle cry. Even more remarkable is the sense that its rhymed quatrains comprise much more than an effortless execution of form, conveying a host of revolutionary philosophical implications. In particular, the lines “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul,” remind us of Henley’s outspoken — and highly controversial — atheism, which remain a source of individual empowerment in a “place of wrath and tears.” Likewise, “whatever gods may be” are rendered obsolete by the poem’s progressive notions of self-determinism, in what should be interpreted as the triumph of human resilience unaided by divine benevolence.

Henley avoids the usual discourse on order and disorder, instead finding an exhilarating freedom in the absence of divine control, not to mention the kind of empowerment one might expect to derive from godlessness. Fate, in this case remains undecided rather than assigned, a series of events governed by free will and its lifelong struggle against the “fell clutch of circumstance.” Henley’s frightening, if awe-inspiring, revelation that no one can or will write our destiny for us explains “Invictus’” unrivaled popularity in political circles — for how else should political activists understand themselves if not as writers of their own history? No wonder innumerable modern revolutionaries, including Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, have cited Henley’s 19th century poem as a “great unifier that knows no frontiers of space or time,” a heartfelt iteration of “struggle and suffering, the bloody unbowed head, and even death, all for the sake of freedom.”