Christus Invictus: Behind the Verse

Update 2015-05-16: I just came across a well-written post–“Invictus” Redeemed–about the poem and Dorothy Day’s response to it from many years ago. Day’s poem is a good read but the author writes quite well on why it is the original poem isn’t all that inspiring or reasonable when you get into the details.

Christus Invictus: Behind the Verse

In a previous post, I published a poem entitled Christus Invictus. That poem was based on and inspired by William Ernest Henley’s Invictus. Although the Wikipedia article doesn’t cover it, Henley’s Invictus was a “deathbed affirmation of his atheism” [author’s note: not literally, since he wrote it young when he was sick and lived many more years but true per his apparent convictions later in life]. I think most people know the poem even if they don’t know the author or remember the poem in its entirety.

I was piqued in the last two weeks by a Ravi Zacharias podcast mentioning the poem, used in contrast to his Christian message. It’s a good poem, well written, realistic, inspiring, even, but I knew the poem lifted man above God – and, as is my bent, I can not abide what I perceive as foolishness. Thus, Christus Invictus is my response to Henley’s Invictus attempting to show the vastly different perspective of one suffering, as Henley did, yet living with the hope of glory in the salvation of Jesus Christ.

I had a few goals in mind when revising his poem. The first was to respond in verse, speaking on the same themes, but from the perspective of salvation. That was a driving force. A second goal was to show how changing so very little of the poem could result in such a different attitude, pained yet joyful, humble yet victorious. Another goal was to avoid sugar-coating the Christian experience. God does not promise unending earthly happiness. In fact, He promises the opposite. Hence, the poem is left untouched in many areas to retain and openly admit the reality Henley experienced and wrote about.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank, in Him, Jesus Christ
For my redeemed and purchased soul.

Henley had it right with “Out of the night that covers me, \ Black as the pit from pole to pole,” and so I left it as-is. There’s no use arguing against this Fallen world and that evil is afoot here.

Where Henley originally wrote, “I thank whatever gods may be \ For my unconquerable soul,” I knew this was disingenuous. There is a God and He has been saying the same thing to us for all history: Follow me. Just mentioning God, however, didn’t oppose all of the original intent. I needed to speak to Jesus Christ and His act on the cross that is salvation to every man, woman and child, each of us “our redeemed and purchased soul.”

In the fell-hard clutch of circumstance
I have sore-winced and cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of flagrance
My head is bloody and low-bowed.

Note the change from Henley’s “fell clutch” to “fell-hard clutch.” This is not an attempt to remove any of the original meaning but actually a poetic alteration to match the rhythm of the third line’s altered nine syllables.

Henley writes, “I have not winced nor cried aloud,” but he and I both know no human goes through this life without pain and sorrow. I simply admit as much. This line, too, was altered to match the third line’s altered rhythm.

I wanted to change Henley’s insinuation of random chance when he wrote “Under the bludgeonings of chance” and so altered the last word to “flagrance.” The truth is there is something going on in this world and there is more to the events that occur, to our circumstances, and to our choices, than simple random chance. This is the change that necessitated the “fell-hard” and “sore-winced” rewording in the first and second lines.

Sheer contrast is needed in the fourth line to provide force to the incredible difference of response one should expect from one saved from eternal death. Henley’s original, “My head is bloody, but unbowed,” needed a response that indicated an alternative to the natural reaction of men to the evils of this world. I did not want to diminish the reality of pain, however, and so “My head is bloody” remains.

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.

This verse is unique. There is absolutely no change to wording. I felt it was all accurate, fair and true. The observant reader will notice, though, that there is a single difference: The “S” in “Shade” has been capitalized where it was lowercase in the original. Where the original implies an insignificant nothingness, I wished to simply and subtly convey a terrifying somethingness, that which is the only thing left when one’s fate is not with God in the eternal.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
He is the captain of my soul.

Here, we come to Henley’s climactic verse of self-statement and self-direction. Most people know the last two lines of this verse even if they know nothing else about the context of those words.

Henley’s first lines are true and so left unchanged. The Christian admits God’s Way is straight, narrow, and difficult to maintain. The Christian admits God’s punishments are strong but know His mercy is greater and, His sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, ultimate in securing our souls.

And now Henley rings out at his strongest, his mightiest. His conclusion, affirmation and pronouncement: “I am the master of my fate: \ I am the captain of my soul.” And it is here that the strongest, mightiest contrast needs to be made.

Henley was right and Henley was wrong. He is very right in saying, “I am the master of my fate.” A man may choose, indeed, to accept or reject what is offered him. He may choose to accept Jesus’s salvation and he may choose to reject the same. Man is the master of his fate in the end.

C.S. Lewis put it in this way: It is either “Thy Will be done” or “Thy will be done.” We say to God, “Thy Will be done,” or God says to us, “Thy will be be done.”

Henley’s closing needs change in order to present the true distinction of the  faithful. The Christian understands he has chosen to accept what Jesus has done. The Christian understands that in so doing he makes not himself but Jesus the very captain of his soul.

I am the master of my fate:
He is the captain of my soul.

Christus Invictus is my response to Henley’s Invictus showing a Christian perspective on the same themes. I hoped to show the incredible difference of perspective of one who is going through suffering, as Henley did in his life, but who also lived with the hope of salvation in Jesus Christ.

I even had the thought that I was “sticking up for God” which is a childish thing to think for a Christian. The Almighty needs no champion but Himself; And He already came in the form of the Son, Jesus Christ, who hung on a cross for our sins, died, and rose again, and conquered everything.

Nevertheless, God is due His rightful honour and glory. As Joseph said, in Genesis 50:20, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” I make no claim that this is such a case. That God intended me to do this, I do not make the claim. As Henley is created in the image of God, however, I can see the good within his writing and so wish to see it redeemed, in the end, to the glory of God alone.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16

Misericordia, Soli Deo Gloria

10 thoughts on “Christus Invictus: Behind the Verse”

  1. I am glad to see this response to Invictus. I was planning on doing something like this myself but there is no need now.

    If I had written this I would change the penultimate line. I understand your reasoning behind “I am the master of my fate” and C.S. Lewis’ reference, but I would write “He is the master of my fate”. Implied in this is the act of our surrender to His will.

    Nevertheless! thanks for the response!

    1. Thanks for the comment! Someone posted a similar thought on the original post. I felt the same way, to be honest, and I questioned my intentions when writing it but I felt there was something there, something real and not white washed in the Christian faith, that I had to make sure was represented in the poem. I appreciate the feedback though. I can only hope this serves as an encouragement to people out there!

    2. By the way, never feel like you shouldn’t write your own. There were responses before mine and there will be plenty after in one form or another. Be creative! Yours will reach different hearts than mine, and mine will reach different hearts than the ones that came before me. It’s all to God’s own glory :)

  2. Here’s a hymn I thought that counters Invictus well. See below:

    I dare not be defeated, with Calvary in view;
    Where Jesus conquered Satan,
    Where all His foes He slew;
    Come, Lord, and give the vision
    To nerve me for the fight;
    Make me an overcomer
    Clothed with Thy Spirit’s might.

    A victor, a victor! Because of Calvary,
    Make me an overcomer,
    A conqu’ror, a conqu’ror, Lord, in Thee.

    I dare not be defeated
    Since Christ, my conquering King,
    Has called me to the battle
    Which He did surely win.
    Come, Lord, and give me courage,
    Thy conquering Spirit give,
    Make me an overcomer,
    In power within me live.

    I dare not be defeated
    When Jesus leads me on;
    To press through hellish regions
    To share with Him His throne.
    Come, Lord, and give Thy soldier
    The power to wield the sword;
    Make me an overcomer.
    Through Thine inerrant Word.

    I dare not be defeated, just at the set of sun,
    When Jesus waits to whisper,
    “Well done, beloved, well done”;
    Come, Lord, bend from the Glory,
    On me Thy Spirit cast,
    Make me an overcomer, A victor to the last.

    Penned by Margaret Barber

  3. You’re full of crap. The poem was written when he was 17. He lived to 53. He had a very impoverished childhood. Also, at the age of 12, he contracted tuberculosis of the bone. A few years later, the disease progressed to his foot, and physicians announced that the only way to save his life was to amputate his leg directly below the knee. It was amputated when he was 17. Immediately after the amputation, he received news that another operation would have to be done on his other leg. He decided to enlist the help of a different doctor and was able to keep his other leg by undergoing intensive surgery on his remaining foot. While recovering from this surgery, he wrote this poem.

    It is true that Chris is the real captain of our soul (or should be), but I don’t think the intention on this young man when he wrote this poem was to undermine the role of Jesus Christ. I think he was just trying to capture the empowerment and determination that helped him make it through some very tough circumstances and the fact that each person is individually responsible for what they do with their life.

    1. Thank you for your comment! You’re right, the “deathbed affirmation” is a little less literal than it would seem. I think the idea is that, while he did write the words at a young age, it still mirrored his convictions later in life.

      I think it’s clear from lines such as “I thank whatever gods may be \ For my unconquerable soul”, “My head is bloody, but unbowed”, and especially the entire last stanza “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.” The last is an especially charged statement considering the Christianity of His time and the biblical understanding of humility and salvation.

      Certainly, all young people have a bent towards anti-establishment but Henley does not appear to have withdrawn what he has said in this poem, and it would appear the consensus of commentators over the years leans in the atheistic direction as well.

      Thanks, again!

      1. Ah,yes… Commentators said he was an atheist, did they? It could never be that by saying his head was bloody but not bowed ment that he wasn’t going to give up. It must not be that this poem is about a man’s struggle to not give in. We are not forced to accept Christ. We have freewill bestowed upon us by the creator Himself. It is a man’s desicion to overcome and with Christ bestowing guidance and comfort he can succeed in the face of adverse odds. I do not beleave we are nothing but dirt and trash without Christ. I beleave we are beautiful creations of God and we each have a mind a will of our own. He did not make us incomplete. A man chooses his fate with each choice he makes. A man captains his soul either toward Christ or away.

        1. Thank you so much for writing that, E and Barrett! I was watching a video where nuns were talking about a poem Dorothy Day stole and changed into a saccharine tune, and they would not even give the NAME of the person whose words they stole, but I recognized they were copycatting Invictus. Henley was beloved for his courage, the pain he got through, and being one-legged most of his life. Even his little daughter died when she was five. But they can’t leave it alone. He is a “humanist” or an “atheist”–not a man suffering honestly. This thievery and disrespect of a person’s words to “improve” them, and the insipid judgement of someone like Dorothy Day. Why is it always the woman who has had an abortion and converts who thinks she is right to indulge herself in judging others, even posthumously. She is full of crap.

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