Symbolism in William Ernest Henley's Invictus
In William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus,” the author uses the images of the darkness of the night, the violence of chance, and one taking control to convey a tone of determination. The protagonist undergoes a transformation from gratitude to defiance. In the poem, Henley further explores the theme using metaphors, personification, and allusion, which also enhances the tone.
First, the author utilizes the image of the darkness of night to establish the tone of determination. Making the night a metaphor for his circumstances, Henley emphasizes the inescapability of his problems and impending death; for example, the night “covers” the main character (Henley 1). The way the author describes his complete envelopment by the night works to illustrate the unavoidable problems he must face. Although Henley describes the darkness as “black as the pit,” (2) he still specifies his defiance and determination by expressing his gratitude to “whatever gods” may have led to the creation of his unique soul, which he credits for his determination to survive (3).
Second, Henley employs the image of the harshness of chance and its violent effects to create a tone of determination. The author strengthens the tone through the use of the phrases “fell clutch” (5) and “bludgeonings,” which describe the personified character of chance and circumstance (7) . The severe description of chance illustrates the cruelty and unpredictability of life, and how humans cannot reasonably prevent most happenings of circumstance. By personifying fate, the author describes it in a way understandable to the reader, and make it easier to visualise his “fight” for life. Despite the hardships, the protagonist states he has “not winced,” (6) and his head remains “unbowed” (8). The narrator emphasizes his unwillingness to surrender to fate, and his determination to overcome the odds stacked against him.
Third, the author uses the image of himself assuming leadership over his problems to reinforce a tone of determination. Through his biblical allusions, Henley stresses his resolution to conquer any obstacles he may face, regardless of their size or implied importance; for example, the poet refers to biblical text with the phrases “strait the gate,” which symbolizes the metaphorical list of good deeds a person has committed, and “the scroll,” which alludes to the canonical book of life, filled with the sins of every human being (13). By referencing such resolute and universally accepted concepts as biblical lore, Henley aims to instill in the reader his total desire to live (14). The protagonist resolves to fight against God’s will before he plans to succumb to death. The words “master” (15) and “captain” support the main character’s view of himself as the principal authority of his future, and the determination he possesses to fulfill this role (16). This stanza truly solidifies the protagonist’s transformation from gratitude to defiance against anything attempting to control his fate.
In essence, Henley makes use of the images of the all-consuming darkness of the night, the nondiscriminatory cruelty of fate, and a character’s unfaltering will to live to create a tone of determination. Throughout the poem, the author illustrates a transformation of the main character from a feeling of gratitude to outside forces to defiance against those aiming to control his future. The implementation of techniques such as metaphors, personification, and allusions fortifies the tone of determination. “Invictus” illustrates a dying man’s resolve to defeat outside forces and continue to live.