William Ernest Henley (1849-1903) wrote a poem about a very difficult time in his life, a work that has been both praised and (unjustly) derided over the years. Its subject is the human spirit and its response to difficult circumstances.
We all have seen how differently people react to the same trying event, such as the death of a dear family member or a terrible accident: some just regard it quietly, with grim, dry-eyed stoicism, while others fall apart completely and can barely function. How one responds gives a very good picture of one’s psychological makeup.
In such times of trial — we commonly speak of them as “dark” times — we are forced to see the negative side of life, the side we try to ignore or forget about for our own mental health. But Henley could not forget about it or overlook it. As a boy he suffered so severely from tubercular arthritis that doctors eventually removed one of his legs. Medicine in those days was still primitive and germ-ridden, and the result of surgery was often infection and death. When, in 1873, doctors wanted to remove his other leg, Henley managed to get another opinion, which fortunately was that of Joseph Lister, the man who pioneered the new technique of antiseptic surgery. By that decision Henley saved his remaining leg.
Because of all his difficulties, Henley was “in hospital” as the British say, for a very long time, almost two years, and one can imagine how this must have affected the young man. He began to write poetry about those troubling months, a series of verses called In Hospital.
Henley had certainly known dark times. He could truly say, as Robert Frost wrote in a poem, “I have been one acquainted with the night.” He must have felt like those unfortunates spoken of in William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence:
Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born.
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.
What follows is the most famous of his “hospital” poems. It was written in 1875, and was later given a title that summarizes it well — Invictus, Latin for “Unconquered”:
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.
We have seen that “night” is a metaphor for dark and difficult times. So dark were those times for Henley that he described them as night so black that it “extended from pole to pole,” that is, it darkened his whole world.
He speaks of that darkness as “black as the pit.” What is “the pit”? At that time the Bible was well known in Britain, and so immediately a reader would have recognized “the pit” as a synonym for death, the grave, as in Job 17:16:
“They shall go down to the bars of the pit, when our rest together is in the dust.”
But again for those in Britain, it was a common term among coal miners, for whom “to go down the pit” meant to descend into a coal mine, and there was nothing blacker than the depths of a coal mine when a lamp went out, no darkness, at least no physical darkness, greater. So this usage by Henley was, in its time, very strong and expressive.
But in that darkness, he did not just give in to utter despair. He did not let his emotions rule him; instead, he took charge of his thoughts, guiding himself through those black times like a captain in control of his ship. For this ability he is so grateful that he thanks whatever in the universe gave him the ability to manifest this inner strength; he thanks whatever gods there might be, whatever the reasons were, for his unconquerable spirit.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Henley used the old word “fell,” as did J.R.R. Tolkien, to mean “deadly, terrible.” In the terrible and deadly grasp of the circumstances that beset him, Henley did not wince, did not shrink back, nor did he cry out in anguish. He kept his composure. And under the beatings that fortune had dealt him, he took those blows but did not give in or submit. Metaphorically speaking, his head was wounded, but he kept it erect and did not bow to the forces besetting him, he did not give in to despair. These words “My head is bloody, but unbowed” have become famous and are often quoted. One thinks of the old Christian hymn by Bach, O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” “O Head full of blood and wounds,” referring to the passion of Jesus, and Henley may have had that image of the Passion in mind.
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.
Henley’s attitude is much like that of the pre-Christian Romans. They did not know what came after death, but often pictured the afterworld as a dark place. He sees this world as a “place of wrath and tears,” a place of suffering and sorrow, and beyond that comes death, “the Horror of the shade.” “Shade” here means darkness, shadows, but it also has undertones of the old use of the word, meaning a departed spirit. So he cannot see what lies before him; all is shadowed. Yet he has survived so far, and “the menace of the years,” the threat both of life and of what lies beyond, “finds and shall find me unafraid.” Henley has survived the trials of life, and he will go through the trials of death, whatever they may be, with the same strength of spirit. His attitude here is both courageous and agnostic (literally “not-knowing”) — he is confident that he will deal with whatever comes.
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.
Henley begins his final stanza with a biblical allusion, Matthew 7:13 in the King James Version:
“Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”
“Strait” is an old word meaning narrow and constricted. The biblical reference means that the way to eternal life is so narrow and difficult that very few will find it and be able to make it though.
He continues with the old notion that all of a human’s deeds in life, both good and bad, are written down in a book or on a scroll. We find this notion in the Bible, in Revelation 20:12
“And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.”
So Henley is using old allusions to signify that it does not matter how difficult the passage into the afterlife may be, nor does it matter what awaits him there, even if it be punishment. Through it all he will maintain his inner strength, and nothing will cow (intimidate) him.
Some people may see this, incorrectly, as a very egotistical poem, because we know that many difficult circumstances in life, and certainly ultimate death, are quite beyond our control. But Henley is not saying he controls the great events of life and death; he is saying simply that whatever life or death may bring, he has already been through the fire, he has already been tested by suffering, and that has given him unconquerable strength. For him the old saying of Friedrich Nietzsche has proved true:
“Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker”
“What does not kill me, makes me stronger.”
Because of his previous suffering, he now has the courage to face whatever may come. As Buddhism teaches, that which we no longer fear has no real power over us.