Written from a hospital bed in 1875, after the 26-year-old Henley had had his leg amputated as a result of tuberculosis of the bone. Originally untitled, Arthur Quiller-Couch bestowed the name “Invictus” (“Unvanquished”) when he included it in The Oxford Book of English Verse. This was the poem Nelson Mandela kept on a scrap of paper during his imprisonment. And, at the other end of the spectrum, this was the poem that Timothy McVeigh chose as his last statement prior to being executed for the Oklahoma City bombings. Oh, and Henley survived until the age of 53, and inspired the character of Long John Silver in Treasure Island by his friend R.L. Stevenson.
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.