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Whenever you are experiencing a moment of self-doubt or self-pity, a quick remedy would be to recite William Ernest Henley's "Invictus" to yourself a few times. "Invictus" is one of the most inspiring poems I have ever read, especially after learning of Henley's turbulent life. "Invictus" is a
poem that speaks of overcoming physical as well as emotional anguish to maintain your own spirit and identity.
Perhaps some may view this poem as slightly self-absorbed or even arrogant. But when reminded of Henley's constant pain due to his tuberculosis, and his impoverished childhhod, one can learn to admire Henley's "unconquerable soul" even after the "bludgeonings of chance." These bludgeonings
can be taken literally (due to his chronic physical pain) or figuratively (due to his unfortunate early life), but his "head is bloody, but unbowed." To me, this shows that endurance and strength through difficult times is always possible. Henley fought his virus, he fought his way out of poverty, and was still able to establish a meaningful life for himself. After learning his biography, it seems to me that this poem captures the true spirit of Henley's soul. This poem inspires me, and hopefully many others, to persevere to achieve constant improvement regardless of life's desolate circumstances.
Henley expresses in "Invictus" that:
"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.
It is evident here that life will always send you in a different direction than you may have planned, and though people may try, they cannot change you. Henley may not have been able to control what happened to him in life, but he knew he was the only one who could determine the way in which he would live his life. Hopefully, by reading "Invictus", everyone could adopt at least a little bit of his drive and self-confidence to live their life as fully as he did, regardless of circumstances.
"Invictus", as it has come to be called, is the only poem composed by William Ernest Henley that saves him from fading into obscurity amongst Victorian writers. Despite an impressive body of work, a brilliant career as an editor, and relations with other more popular writers, Henley's accomplishments, save for "Invictus", are unfairly overlooked. At least, however, the poem that he is most remembered for presents an accurate portrayal of this truly interesting person.
Probably the most important aspect of "Invictus" is Henley's agnostic attitude. Unsure of any one particular god, he thanks "whatever gods may be;" that is, if there are any gods at all. By the end of the poem, it is clear that the existence of any god or gods is purely inconsequential to Henley's own existence. He is the master of his fate, the captain of his soul. He is the champion of self-reliance, and challenges the notion that man cannot rely upon inner strength alone, that he must have the help of some sort of deity in order to survive in this world. Henley's feelings towards these experiences were most likely born out of his harrowing hospital experiences, and his powerful triumph over tuberculosis. "Invictus" is the poem of a survivor, and a survivor is exactly what Henley was.
William Ernest Henley will probably always be remembered primarily for "Invictus,"even though he accomplished far more in his lifetime than the mere completion of this one poem. It is, though, the most characteristic of his strong willed personality. Hopefully, some people will find this poem interesting enough in the future to do some further reading into Henley's impressive catalogue.
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