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In the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley (Youtube) I failed to grasp the meaning of the line "black as the pit from pole to pole":

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.
[...]

What does it mean? What does pole refer to here?

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From pole to pole refers to the North Pole and South Pole of a planet; it means all over the world.

In Wikipedia's article on Invictus, it has a section on its meaning:

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.

The first stanza depicts the speaker at night, in reflection. The poles referenced in the second line, the North and South poles, frame the entire world in a darkness, which is like that of a pit (not simply a hole; a place of incarceration, death though also alternatively like a Orchestra Pit).

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  • 1
    That's what I was thinking, but I wasn't sure.
    – DForck42
    Nov 8 '11 at 19:59
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The pit is probably a proper physical pit, as in a hole. In the 19th century some believed that one could travel through the earth from the North Pole to the South Pole. I believe the poem is referencing this theory of the Earth's structure. Thus the blackness is the blackness of an abyss that extends deep within the earth.

Edgar Allen Poe made use of this theory in his "MS. Found in a Bottle."

Background on the theory, from Wikipedia:

In 1818, John Cleves Symmes, Jr. suggested that the Earth consisted of a hollow shell about 1,300 km (810 mi) thick, with openings about 2,300 km (1,400 mi) across at both poles with 4 inner shells each open at the poles. Symmes became the most famous of the early Hollow Earth proponents. He proposed making an expedition to the North Pole hole, thanks to efforts of one of his followers, James McBride. United States president John Quincy Adams indicated he would approve of this but he left office before this could occur. .. Jeremiah Reynolds also delivered lectures on the "Hollow Earth" and argued for an expedition. Reynolds went on an expedition to Antarctica himself but missed joining the Great U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838–1842, even though that venture was a result of his agitation. Though Symmes himself never wrote a book about his ideas, several authors published works discussing his ideas. McBride wrote Symmes' Theory of Concentric Spheres in 1826. It appears that Reynolds has an article that appeared as a separate booklet in 1827: Remarks of Symmes' Theory Which Appeared in the American Quarterly Review. In 1868, a professor W.F. Lyons published The Hollow Globe which put forth a Symmes-like Hollow Earth hypothesis, but failed to mention Symmes himself. Symmes's son Americus then published The Symmes' Theory of Concentric Spheres in 1878 to set the record straight.

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  • Welcome to Literature.StackExchange!
    – DForck42
    Nov 17 '11 at 20:35
2

In my edition, the phrase was Black as the Pit, making it clear that the reference was to the Pit of Tartarus (black as the chimney of Hell is a similar phrase in less morally edifying contexts). There may also be a reference to coal pit, or coalmine.

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I suspect that the "pit" the core underneath. A pit is also the "seed" inside a piece of fruit. And the soul is considered by some to be inside too.

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    Henley was a true Victorian, and would have thought Americanisms like pit for stone of a fruit to be vulgar, I think. May 4 '12 at 21:18
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The pit, in this context, seems to me a reference to underground mines, common throughout England. Miners went down "the pit" in common vernacular. The poles, also common reference, are the two vertical shafts common in pre Victorian mines for ventilation and access. Mines were complete darkness without a lamp.

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There was a variation on Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein" by Steven Utley & Howard Waldrop entitled "Black as the Pit, from Pole to Pole" in which the pit refers to the inside of the hollow earth. I think it was written in 1977 so maybe they got it from Invictus. Still it gives us a possible meaning.

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