Sunday, August 19, 2007

Invictus by William Ernest Henley


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.
--William Ernest Henley

As I was looking for poems quoted by President Faust, I found this one in a talk by President Hinckley. It has a determined plodding rhythm, as if he's climbing a mountain one slow step at a time. I've felt that way at times--like the world is pressing me down, and it's only my own will power that's keeping me going at all. In those times, thoughts like, "Life's lousy, and then you die" (expressed more elegantly in his third stanza) aren't scary at all. No matter how bad death and the afterlife may be, it certainly can't be worse than living like this.

Of course, a more accurate interpretation would be that it doesn't matter what circumstances life throws at us, we're the ones who get to decide how to react. The poet is saying, you can send him to Heaven or Hell, it won't matter. He can be happy or sad, defiant or conquered, without reference to anyone else. It's his choice.

Here's what President Hinckley had to say about it in his 2000 Christmas Devotional:
It is a great poem. It places upon the individual the responsibility for what he does with his life. Through these many years, when I have been faced with difficult choices I have repeated these stirring words.

But on the other hand, it may sound arrogant and conceited in terms of the Atonement. Orson F. Whitney, of the Quorum of the Twelve of many years ago, so regarded it and wrote a marvelous response using the same poetic meter and entitling his verse “The Soul’s Captain.”

Art thou in truth? Then what of Him
Who bought thee with His blood?
Who plunged into devouring seas
And snatched thee from the flood,

Who bore for all our fallen race
What none but Him could bear--
That God who died that man might live
And endless glory share.

Of what avail thy vaunted strength
Apart from His vast might?
Pray that His light may pierce the gloom
That thou mayest see aright.

Men are as bubbles on the wave,
As leaves upon the tree,
Thou, captain of thy soul! Forsooth,
Who gave that place to thee?

Free will is thine- free agency,
To wield for right or wrong;
But thou must answer unto Him
To whom all souls belong.

Bend to the dust that "head unbowed,"
Small part of life's great whole,
And see in Him and Him alone,
The captain of thy soul.

It seems to me that while this response misses the point of the original poem, that each individual gets to decide how to respond to the things he can't control in this life, it teaches a bigger truth. If you give up some measure of control over your decisions (by choosing to follow the commandments of the Lord rather than your own whims), then your new Captain, Christ, will steer your ship on a course that will lead to eternal happiness far greater than a defiant soul, as happy as it may choose to be, can imagine.

P.S. Bonus points to anyone who can find me the lyrics to Afterglow's "Captain of my Soul" for comparison. I know Mom used to have them on tape...


  1. Hi, Karen. This is Marlon at AMA Computer College. Upon reading your article in your blog,I am suprised how you arrange you words in varied sentences. Your thoughts are so nice and you wrote the correct thing. I like it.

  2. You’re invited to view my video “Bat Khuat (Tap 4)” which features the song Bat Khuat that was inspired by the poem Invictus.