Origins of "Invictus"



"Invictus", published in 1875, may have been anticipated by two earlier poems written by William Ernest Henley, but never published. These poems are "A Love by the Sea" and "A Thanksgiving," dated September of 1872 and September of 1875, respectively. Both poems share similar aspects of "Invictus," and both possess strikingly similar wordings.

A Love by the Sea
-1-
Out of the starless night that covers me,
(O tribulation of the wind that rolls!)
Black as the cloud of some tremendous spell,
The sussuration of the sighing sea
Sounds like the sobbing whisper of two souls
That tremble in a passion of farewell.
-2-
To the desires that trebled life in me,
(O melancholy of the wind that rolls!)
The dreams that seemed the future to foretell,
The hopes that mounted herward like the sea,
To all the sweet things sent on happy souls,
I cannot choose but bid a mute farewell.
-3-
And to the girl who was so much to me
(O lamentation of this wind that rolls!)
Since I may not the life of her compel,
Out of the night, beside the sounding sea,
Full of the love that might have blent our souls,
A sad, a last, a long, supreme farewell.

In reference to this poem, Edward H. Cohen states that "the parallels here to'Invictus' are self-evident: the dramatic first line, the heavy rhyming vowels, the sense of despair which modulates forebearance. Equally apparent are the deficiencies of this work as an early draft..."(193). In light of Cohen's arguments, "A Love by the Sea" can easily be seen as at least an early beginning for what later would become "Invictus."

While "A Love by the Sea" possesses a similar first line and rhyme scheme to "Invictus," "A Thanksgiving" shares even more similar qualities:

A Thanksgiving

From brief delights that rise to me
Out of unfathomable dole,
I thank whatever gods there be
For mine unconquerable soul.
In the strong clutch of Circumstance
It has not winced, nor groaned aloud.
Before the blows of eyeless chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
I front unfeared the threat of space
And dwindle into dark again.
My work is done, I take my place
Among the years that wait for men.
My life, my broken life must be
One unsuccourable dole.
I thank the gods- they gave to me
A dauntless and defiant soul.

It is obvious simply by reading this piece that it anticipated the final draft of "Invictus." The similar rhyme pattern and phrasings are proof of this. These texts were found by Henley in 1888. "Invictus" was dated in 1875, but there is no reason to believe that it was drafted in that year, as "A Love by the Sea" and "A Thanksgiving" suggest a revising process that may have began as early as 1872. Perhaps Henley realized that "A Thanksgiving" was a weaker version of the finished product, "... and that, in seeking to make the work more dramatic, it seized upon the opening line and key phrases and sonances of 'A Love by the Sea'". (Cohen 196) Furthermore, these two poems suggest that "Invictus" is "...the culmination of a long and torturous struggle for life and truly as an epilogue to all the poems Henley wrote In Hospital. (Cohen 196)


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