William Henley’s ‘Invictus’ was written in 1875 when the author was still in his mid-twenties, and originally published in 1888 without its distinctive title which is Latin for ‘unconquered’.
When Henley was 16 years old, his left leg was amputated due to complications arising from tuberculosis. In the early 1870s, he was told that his right leg would also require amputation. Instead, he chose to travel to Edinburgh to enlist the services of the distinguished English surgeon Joseph Lister, who was able to save Henley’s remaining leg after multiple surgical interventions on the foot. While recovering in the infirmary, Henley was moved to write the verses that eventually became “Invictus”.
A memorable evocation of steadfast courage, the poem has often inspired strength during times of extreme duress:
In a speech to the House of Commons on 9 September 1941, Winston Churchill paraphrased the last two lines of the poem, stating “We are still masters of our fate. We still are captains of our souls.”
While incarcerated at Robben Island prison, Nelson Mandela recited the poem to other prisoners who were empowered by its message of self-mastery.
The poem was read by US POWs in North Vietnamese prisons. James Stockdale recalls being passed the last stanza, written with rat droppings on toilet paper, from fellow prisoner David Hatcher.
In popular culture, the poem is often recited, sometimes ironically or apocryphally:
In the 1942 film Casablanca, Captain Renault, an official played by Claude Rains, recites the last two lines of the poem when talking to Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart, referring to his power in Casablanca. Ironically, after delivering this line, he is called away by an aide to Gestapo officer Major Strasser.
The audio at the top of this post is drawn from the film Invictus in which Nelson Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman, presents a copy of the poem to Francois Pienaar, captain of the national South African rugby team, for inspiration during the Rugby World Cup—though in reality, Mandela gave Pienaar a text of “The Man in the Arena” passage from Theodore Roosevelt’s Citizenship in a Republic speech delivered in France in 1910.
Star Trek: Renegades opens with Lexxa Singh reciting the poem and writing it on the wall of her prison cell.
This post was compiled by Michael Simms for Vox Populi.