Thursday, 1 December 2016

Invictus || William Ernest Henley

I first came across Invictus by William Ernest Henley a short while after my sixth form English Lit teacher helped me fall back in love with poetry by way of William Blake. I'd suddenly included the poetry section in my local Waterstones into my weekly browsing ritual, but didn't know where to begin, so I started with a classic anthology: Poetry Please. It was a neat little hard back book, almost pocket size, with a lavender coloured spine. I read it cover to cover, engaging with some poems more than others, and rereading and rereading.

Invictus gets a bad rap I always think, for such a powerful poem. It is perhaps simplistic or lacking in subtlety, but I'd argue that its blatant in-your-face-ness is another way of imparting the message. He is the master of his fate and he shows you that with the unrelenting force of the poem as well as through the words themselves.

It's a significant poem throughout history and has come to represent Britishness, the 'stiff upper lip' mindset, and Victorian stoicicm. It is widely quoted both in fact and fiction, from Churchill's wartime speeches to Dorothy L Sayers's detective-hero, Peter Wimsey.

For me, the significance is wholly personal. My sister was very ill at the time I first came across the poem, having also been very ill as a child, so it soon morphed into a poem that represents her and her unconquerable strength. Sometimes the simplest of poems can root you to reality and act as a beacon of hope. Invictus did that for me in those uneasy sixth form days and continues to do so now. A couple of years after I first read it I showed it to my sister and tried to describe what it means to me in relation to her. She now has the title tattooed on her foot and the final two lines on her leg.

I think my experiences with this poem, found by chance just when I needed it, is testament to the power of poetry.

Have you ever had a similar experience with a poem?


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