What Is the Theme of the Poem “Invictus”?

William Ernest Henley’s lyric poem “Invictus” has as its theme the drive to thrive even when confronted by a difficult trial. In Henley’s own life, his trial was facing tuberculosis as a young man; an infection caused him to lose one leg below the knee. However, when a similar infection struck his other leg, he sought the advice of a medical pioneer who saved it for him.

One of Henley’s close friends was the author Robert Louis Stevenson, and when Stevenson wrote “Treasure Island,” the classic character Long John Silver (who happens to be a pirate with a peg leg) was based on Henley. Henley actually wrote “Invictus” and several other poems during his twenty-month stay at Scotland’s Royal Edinburgh Infirmary, as Dr. Joseph Lister attempted to use his innovative antiseptic medicines on Henley’s infection. Lister, whose name was the inspiration behind Listerine, the first antiseptic mouthwash, was eventually able to eliminate the infection and save Henley’s leg.

The poem “Invictus” has stood the test of time as a classic. Some critics consider it mediocre in terms of literary merit, and it does not appear in many anthologies. Even so, it continues to be a motivating work for many readers today.