Who is master of your fate?


I’m generally not a fan of poetry. Too much wallowing in stilted language trying to express deeply felt angst for my taste. But there are a few I like very much because they express important aspects of human life in straightforward language — well, at least understandable.

I’ll tell you about a poem that illustrates the folly of the world’s descent down the rabbit hole of victimology.

In 1867 William Ernest Henley was 18 years old and not yet the accomplished English poet he would become. At that formative age, complications from tuberculosis required amputation of his left leg, to the knee. His illness required continual drainage of abscesses. His younger brother Joseph told stories how Henley would hop around his room after the painful draining, creating fun and pretending the pain did not exist.

In his late 20s, while being treated for further complications Henley was told his right leg also required amputation. He searched for and found a specialist whose treatment saved his right leg. During this tumultuous process he wrote a poem expressing his refusal to compromise what he expected of himself, his determination that these troubles would not diminish him, and his declaration that it is his duty alone to maintain his spirit no matter how much adversity life presents to him.

This poem was published in 1875 and became known as “Invictus,” Latin for “unconquered.”

Henley’s friend, Robert Louis Stevenson, wrote to him after Stevenson’s novel, “Treasure Island,” was published in 1883, saying in part, “I will now make a confession. It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver … the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you.”

The “sound” Stevenson mentioned was, I believe, the thump of the character Silver’s peg leg that struck fear in the hearts of some of the pirates.

Now that you know the short version of Henley’s story, consider his words in Invictus.


by William Ernest Henley

(circa 1875 — public domain)

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.

Within Invictus, the “Horror of the shade” seems to mean death, and how he would rather fight painfully in life than rest peacefully in death.

In the last stanza, “how straight the gate” refers to Matthew 7:14 from the King James Version of the Bible: “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” This continues a metaphor from the previous biblical verse about the narrow and difficult path of virtue, versus the easy path of self-indulgence.

In an age of keen focus on rights but little attention to responsibilities, what I take from “Invictus” is an inspiring reminder that it is not up to others or governments to coddle or take care of us. The duty to chart our course and persevere is ours alone, even when it isn’t easy.

[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen.]


  1. I’m also a fan of the Invictus poem, the book “Playing the Enemy,” the film “Invictus,” and the ESPN 30-for-30 mini-documentary “The 16th Man,” which is a better and maybe even more inspirational look at Mandela’s policies of truth and reconciliation framed through the Springboks rugby team’s victory in South Africa.

    What I am not a fan of is this, from Mr Garlock’s reflection on the poem:
    “In an age of keen focus on rights but little attention to responsibilities, what I take from ‘Invictus’ is an inspiring reminder that it is not up to others or governments to coddle or take care of us. The duty to chart our course and persevere is ours alone, even when it isn’t easy.”

    You know whose life would have been easier and whose opportunities would have been broadened and who probably would have been happier and more fulfilled if his government had “coddled” and “taken care” of him? The poem’s author William Ernest Henley! Imagine if he had lived under a regime that prioritized care for the poor and sick. I realize they didn’t have the medical advancements at that time which we have now … but nor did they have any organized, governmental system for caring for the most vulnerable that didn’t do more harm than good (debter’s prison, the treadmill and poor houses, etc.).

    The insistence on rugged individualism today is toxic. Not everyone has the same advantages that make pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps possible. To expect the government at least to level that playing field is NOT coddling people; it’s treating them fairly. This is the lesson I think President Mandela learned from the poem: once he overcame his enemies and became master of his fate, he used that power to heal, bring peace, and promote prosperity for all. He didn’t expect everyone to survive 30 years in prison, come out and be elected president — he expected those who WERE able to master their fate to then turn and reach back for others in need.

    I find it appalling to twist the words of Christ about “narrow is the way” to mean that being a Christian is onerous and hard work and you have to do it yourself out of rugged individualism and mastering your fate. You can fulfill the law, according to Scripture, by one word: love. And love is better embodied by systems that protect the most vulnerable than by maxims that just command them to get better because they’re the masters of their fate.

  2. Suz, please clarify if you will: are you taking exception to the Thoughts that Mr. Garlock puts forward or are you just wanting to express your admiration of Nelson Mandela? I personally did not find this opinion piece to be objectionable.

    • Hello Hometown600–
      By no means am I taking exception to Mr. Garlock’s appreciation of this poem. I have known for years that it was also a favorite of Nelson Mandela. However that juxtaposition puzzled me.

      Mr. Garlock alluded to victimology, rights but little responsibility, governments coddling or taking care of us…as contrary to the message of Invictus. I can understand his point.

      Mr. Mandela voiced and lived a very different perspective of the same verses. One that I can admire.

  3. Magnificent poem! One of my all time favorites. I would also put in a plug for the 2009 film of the same title based on the book by John Carlin, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation, which tells the story of the events in South Africa around the time of the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Mandela was a huge fan of rugby and of Henley’s poem, Invictus.

    • I thank God (literally) that Nelson Mandela found a different message in the poem than Mr. Garlock did!

      Nelson Mandela’s unconquerable spirit did not remain dormant, weighing the worthiness of others. Free, himself (even though incarcerated for much of his life), he worked to free others. (Yes, victims.) And in the process, he built a better South Africa (and a better world).

      Presiding over the difficult transition from apartheid minority rule to a multicultural democracy, Mandela emphasized a personal forgiveness and reconciliation. He stated, “Courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace.” (I hear an echo of that sentiment from another Victim on a Cross…)

      Perhaps “the duty to chart our course and persevere…” is not “ours alone”. Perhaps it is the beginning of a shared vision and a realization that we are all connected.