Invictus: A Poem that Inspired a Nation

By August 23, 2017Poetry, Video

Invictus is a short Victorian poem written by William Ernest Henley (23rd Aug, 1849 – 11th Jul, 1903), published in 1888 in his first volume of poems Book of Verses.

Although little known, the poem was originally published without title. The name Invictus (Latin for unconquered) was added later by editor Arthur Quiller-Couch. The message of the poem is fortitude in adversity, strength, and the stiff upper lip we associate with the Victorian period.

Henley actually wrote the poem after having a leg amputated due to complications from Tuberculosis, and his entire literary reputation rests on these few lines. Throughout history the poem has inspired others in great deeds, giving the poem great historical context. Here are some of its most famous ‘outings’.

In September 1941, Winston Churchill paraphrased the last two lines of the poem in a speech to the House of Commons stating ‘We are still masters of our fate. We still are captains of our soul.’ In a reference to the terrible threat of World War II.

Nobel Peace laureate and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi stated that the poem had inspired his father during the independence struggles.

The poem was also read by US prisoners’ of war in Japanese prisons, a fact known when James Stockdale stated that he recalled being passed the final stanza written with rat droppings on toilet paper from fellow prisoner David Hatchett.

Tomothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber chose Invictus as his final statement before his execution.

The poem was also recited by the Eagle Academy during the 2016 United States Democratic Convention.

However, maybe the most well known reference to Invictus is the one referenced in the title of this peace. It’s said that Nelson Mandela recited the poem to other prisoners while incarcerated at Robben Island. The prisoners were empowered by its message of self-mastery, further inspiring an entire nation for change.

And it’s this that inspired Barrack Obama to read the poem at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in 2013.

Below is the poem, read by Morgan Freeman from the movie ‘Invictus’ where he played Nelson Mandela in a critically acclaimed role.

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