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William Earnest Henley

The story

The British boyWilliam Ernest Henley contracted tuberculosis of the bone when he was just 12 years old.  He suffered from the disease until he was 25.  Bythen it had progressed all the way to his foot.  13 years.

The doctors then told him that they would have to remove his most severely infected leg immediately, and that if he were to survive, they would need to remove the other one as well.

A strong willed person, he gave the doctors permission to remove just one leg, to the knee, but that he was keeping his other leg.

In 1875, at the age of 25 he wrote Invictus from his hospital bed, the perfect expression of his response to the challenges of life.

Invictus is Latin for “undefeated”.


by William Earnest 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 bludgeoning 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.

Nelson Mandela

the rest of the story

Henley went on to live an active, productive life as a poet.  He kept his other leg.

While imprisoned on Robben Island Prison, where he was incarcerated for 27 years, Nelson Mandela (who later served as President of South Africa, and won the Nobel Peace Prize) recited the poem to himself and other prisoners as a way to bolster their spirits, and motivate them to press onward.  He felt empowered by the message of self mastery.

Self mastery

in overcoming adversity

Life is necessarily filled with challenges.  And thank goodness.  How boring it would be otherwise.  But while we can’t control the cards that are dealt us, what we CAN control is how we react to those events.

Will they be events that give us strength?  Will they give us wisdom?  Will they teach us patience?  Perseverance? Will they give us empathy for others?

Much good can come from things that seem so bad.  Life’s greatest opportunities are often hidden in adversity.

But transforming life’s challenges into positive self-propellants takes self-mastery.  Regardless what life gives us, we must remember “I am the master of my fate.  I am the captain of my soul.”


14 replies
  1. Christian Chen
    Christian Chen says:

    At lonely times facing challenges, this speaks to me when I am at my weakest. Everyday is a challenge, it’s up to ourselves to sort it out. I can lay on my bed and sleep it over but knowing that is not what I’ve wanted. Life led us to what we are, we become that. Addiction to substance is a dark and lonely path. A master of my fate, strengthen me yet it’s a mockery to what I’ve driven it to. A captain of my soul, I shall steer to back to the open sea… Its all inspiring. Thank you.

  2. Tessa
    Tessa says:

    hi there. i love this link, have come back to it a second time to read about henley and nelson mandela. just have a quick comment. i wonder why you’ve chosen to have a picture of martin luther king jnr on the page. perhaps because mandela and king have some similarities, but still it seems a disconnect for me.

  3. Adams Muhwezi
    Adams Muhwezi says:

    This poet is a typical example of how responsibly we should live our lives knowing that there are always challenges ahead of ourselves no matter what position we may hold in society. It gives the read a gist that its upon us as individuals what life we might chose to lead, and that we must expect challenges as they come,and we must continue until we achieve our purpose. We need to stand firm when faced with difficulties, and making difficult situations……( Nelson Mandela used Henley’s poem to motivate himself and fellow in mates ‘I am the master of my fate, the Captain of my soul………………..,

  4. Stacey
    Stacey says:

    I am sending this poem and the story to my son who is bootcamp right now. He has overcome the the first two phases, the first especially hard, but is now conquering and looking forward to new challenges. Unfortunately, he is going to be coming home to have to face some very difficult challenges with his wife. I think this might help to give him encouragement.

    • John Jones
      John Jones says:

      I love the poem, for me positive thinking is so important. When faced with adversity we can either succombe, or we can turn our stumbling blocks into stepping stones.
      We must get off our backsides and saddle up our asses

  5. Sarge
    Sarge says:

    I studied this in Jr. High School, 1944, and have used it throughout my life time. I have spoken to 13-14 year olds and they have never heard of it. I hope they still teach Invictus in school. It is so inspiring.

  6. Patrice
    Patrice says:

    Boethius, 6th C scientist/artist/philosopher, falsely accused and condemned to death by medieval torture, wrote “The Consolation of Philosophy” to bolster himself in a similar fashion. I’m certain Henley had read…


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] peace of mind, and all the other riches we desire.  He is reflecting on the famous  poem, Invictus by William Earnest Henley which concludes with the […]

  2. […] Then my brain jumped to Nelson Mandela who often quoted William Ernest Henley:  “I am the master of my fate.  I am the captain of my soul.” […]

  3. […] I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul, Invictus. […]

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