Jeff Swain defines ‘unconquered,’ with some help from his friends: William Ernest ‘Captain of My Soul’ Henley and Tom Petty.

“In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.”
—from Invictus, by William Ernest Henley

Invictus is Latin for “unconquered.” And I love Henley’s “fuck you” attitude in the poem toward what life has thrown at him. Henley grew up poor and contracted tuberculosis, the complications from which led to other health issues. He had one leg amputated in order to save his life. Later, doctors wanted to amputate his other leg but Henley resisted, choosing instead to risk undergoing rather complicated, and painful surgery on his foot in order to save the leg. It was during his recovery from this surgery when he wrote “Invictus,” so you can understand where he’s coming from.

Life isn’t fair and the forces that propel it forward do so with total indifference to the individual creatures in its path. Life, for lack of a better word to describe it, has one aim: to keep pushing on. It does this through birth and death. What is born and what dies is almost immaterial: they are pieces that will come and go. Unfortunately, and as far as we know, humanity is the only animal aware of its mortality. The brain that’s incredible development over millions of years has enabled us to thrive has also gifted us with other capabilities, such as the ability to know from a very young age that our days on Earth are numbered: that we will die. And a great many of the myths we’ve developed have been in response to this knowledge.

Myths began as a way to try and understand the understandable: to make sense of and converse with something that doesn’t necessarily want to talk back to us, at least in any way that would make it easy for us to understand. So I think it’s good—in fact, it’s healthy—that every once in awhile, you’re pushed to your limits, and you have two choices: you can check out or you can fight. It’s a fight that in the end you can never win but there’s definitely a certain amount of satisfaction in picking yourself up and looking back at whatever it is and directing your anger at suffering into staying alive, by turning and fighting, saying, “Fuck you. Is that all you got?”


“When you step out on the ledge you’d better be committed.”

Sometimes I say things without really knowing why. A thought, usually funny, will come to mind and I’ll share it regardless of its appropriateness for the situation. That’s what happened this week at our monthly staff meeting. I was to give an update on a project I’m working on and when it was my turn on the agenda, I was called up to the podium to address everyone.

I work in an architecturally ugly building. Its design is an unimaginative mismatched block design that they wrapped in that tan brick that was so common in the 1970s. The brick is forty years old and chipped and the cement in between is cracking and falling off. The workmen are in the process of replacing the rounded brick with a styrofoam composite made to look like brick. For the last several months the workmen have been climbing up and down on scaffolding. Just as we were meeting, a pair of workmen set up shop outside the conference room and began banging away at the building. So before going into my update I shared this with everyone:

“We all know they’re working on our building. But did you know they are replacing the brick ledges with a styrofoam composite? And you know what that means, don’t you? It means that if any of you are thinking of jumping you’d better be fully committed before you step out the window and onto the ledge. Because if you aren’t, the ledge is going to make the decision for you.”

I was relieved when my observation was greeted with laughter and not repulsion. It could have gone either way.


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.
—William Ernest Henley


A funny aside. I’m sitting in my study writing this post and what comes on Pandora but “Free Falling” by Tom Petty. I like Petty. I always thought he was a good lyricist who wrote tunes with cool grooves and nice hooks, without crossing the line from rock to pop.

“Free Falling” is one of those songs attached to a specific moment in my life. I had just gotten out of the hospital and was still fairly not right in the head. I had lost my home and was living back with my parents until I found an apartment. That gave me the chance to run in the place where I fell in love with running in the first place, Pennypack Park. During one of those runs, “Free Falling” came on and I remember it captured perfectly how I felt. Somewhere along the way I had stepped off the ledge and I was in this continuous fall, into an abyss, or bottomless pit, or something. At that time I was running because it was all I could think of doing to exercise some control over the situation. It’s the strangest feeling, knowing you’re falling and knowing you can do nothing about it. Not knowing what the outcome is going to be when you finally hit the ground. Running was how I said, “Fuck you. Is that all you got? Well, get ready, because here comes mine.”


Read more of Jeff Swain’s column, Man on the Run, on The Good Life.

Image credit:  LaertesCTB/Flickr

About Jeff Swain

Jeff Swain claims to be an expert on nothing. He's just a humble seeker, looking to find out what it's all about. Aside from searching for the meaning of life, Jeff likes to run marathons. You can follow along with his life and adventures on his blog, Twitter, and Facebook.


  1. Loved this post! Relatable (is that a word?) 🙂 Thought provoking,sobering yet refreshing and inspiring.

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