Night, from "Invictus," a poem by William Ernest Henley
Invictus, an assertive poem by William Ernest Henley, starts with a striking image of darkness and night. Despite the pit from pole to pole – a terrifying world without light and with its fell clutch of circumstance, the brave soul of the poem holds firm to his belief in himself – he makes decisions, he controls his own thoughts, he sustains his spirit. The subthemes of Night emanate mostly from the first stanza.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
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.
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.
Nightmares: Henley’s poem begins with a nightmarish vision alluding to pitch dark worsened by entrapment in a pit. Equally terrifying images and predicaments in dreams turn them into nightmares. Unfortunate people even suffer recurring nightmares that night after night subject them to the same fearful imaginings. A nightmare can invoke bats, spiders, and monsters of all kinds, or it can trap the dreamer in a terrible predicament (the exam is upon you, but you forgot; you are told to give a speech despite your stage fright). Post-traumatic stress disorder often visits on victims recurrent night terrors. Or other causes of anxiety and depression can unleash adult nightmares. Whatever the cause, a hallucinatory realism can wrack a person. You wake up startled, sweating, and unable to fall back to sleep. More figuratively, the term “nightmare” has metastasized in a metaphorical sense to cover any dreadful situation.
Scary: In the annals of humankind, the dark of night has been fretted as a frightening time. Perhaps a sheet protects you from attack or embarrassment, perhaps not. You had best stay safely inside and with your companions because out in the dark roam hungry wolves, cruel highwaymen, pitiless criminals, and all manner of terrifying witches, monsters, and other malevolent creatures. Serial killers and Freddie Kruegers with their razored gloves always strike in the eerie, threatening darkness. Lightning strokes pierce the dark, but they also set fires and kill. At the core, blindness scares all of us.
Streetlights: For centuries in cities, with perhaps only candles through windows, the nights were profoundly dark. Without streetlights, it was dangerous to be out when you couldn’t see what might stalk you and pounce. The best course was to batten down the hatches rather than venture out, afraid and with reason, after the crepuscular light disappears. Only recently have streets been lit. Public street lighting was first developed in the 16th century, and accelerated following the invention of lanterns with glass windows, which greatly improved the quantity of light. Nowadays, probably the most common streetlight glows with around 5,000 lumens used in residential areas : a lumen is “a unit of luminous flux equal to the light emitted in a unit solid angle by a uniform point source of one candle intensity.” Street lights include Metal Halide, High Pressure Sodium (HPS), Low Pressure Sodium (LPS), Light Emitting Diode (LED), Phosphor-Converted Amber (PCA) LED, and Narrow-Band Amber (NBA) LED.
As a metaphor for the difficulties of life, the fell clutch of circumstance, pitch-black night conveys Henley’s bleak perception of life. Life may be bludgeonings of chance and a place of wrath and tears, but it cannot steal from us our conviction in our self. We control how we face the dark challenges of life.
If you are interested in further thoughts on the concept of Night, consider other subthemes that don’t fit as directly to the poem, painting, rock song, and movie written about in this series. For an overview, this article explains Themes from Art or click on the navigation bar, About.
We invite you to read about other poems discussed on this blog, and their themes. Here they are:
- Alcohol: Mr. Flood’s Party, by Edwin Arlington Robinson
- Beauty: She Walks in Beauty, by Lord Byron
- Birds: Ode to a Nightingale, by John Keats
- Bridges: The Concord Hymn, a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Chance: Hap, by Thomas Hardy
- Churches: Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold
- Clothes: Upon Julia’s Clothers, by Robert Herrick
- Dancing: My Papa’s Waltz, by Theodore Roethke
- Death: Death, be not proud, by John Donne
- Decisions: The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost
- Destruction: Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley
- Friends: Alone, by Maya Angelou
- Money: Money O!, by W. H. Davies
- Rivers: Kubla Khan, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- Sailing Ships: Old Ironsides, by Oliver Wendell Holmes
- Silence: For Whom the Bell Tolls, by John Donne
- Sleep: The Second Coming, by William Butler Yeats
- Soldiers: The Charge of the Light Brigade, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
- Sports: To an Athlete Dying Young, by A. E. Housman
- Time: To His Coy Mistress, by Andrew Marvell
- Trains: The Railway Train, by Emily Dickinson
- Wind: Ode to the West Wind, by Percy Bysshe Shelley
- Work: Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, by Robert Frost