William Ernest Henley

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William Ernest L. Henley
William Ernest Henley young.jpg
Born 23 August 1849
Gloucester, England
Died 11 July 1903(1903-07-11) (aged 53)
Woking, England
Occupation Poet, critic, and editor
Nationality English
Education The Crypt School, Gloucester
Period c. 1870–1903
Notable works Invictus

William Ernest Henley (23 August 1849 – 11 July 1903) was an English poet, critic and editor, best remembered for his 1875 poem "Invictus".

Life and career[edit]

Henley was born in Gloucester and was the oldest of a family of six children, five sons and a daughter. His father, William, a bookseller and stationer, died in 1868 and was survived by young children and creditors. His mother, Mary Morgan, was descended from the poet and critic Joseph Warton.

Between 1861 and 1867, Henley was a pupil at the The Crypt School, Gloucester. A commission had recently attempted to revive the school by securing as headmaster the brilliant and academically distinguished Thomas Edward Brown (1830–1897). Though Brown's tenure was relatively brief (c.1857–63), he was a "revelation" to Henley because the poet was "a man of genius — the first I'd ever seen". Brown and Henley began a lifelong friendship, and Henley wrote an admiring obituary to Brown in the New Review (December 1897): "He was singularly kind to me at a moment when I needed kindness even more than I needed encouragement".[1]

From the age of 12, Henley suffered from tuberculosis of the bone that resulted in the amputation of his left leg below the knee in 1868–69.[2] According to Robert Louis Stevenson's letters, the idea for the character of Long John Silver was inspired by Stevenson's real-life friend Henley. Stevenson's stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, described Henley as "... a great, glowing, massive-shouldered fellow with a big red beard and a crutch; jovial, astoundingly clever, and with a laugh that rolled like music; he had an unimaginable fire and vitality; he swept one off one's feet". In a letter to Henley after the publication of Treasure Island, Stevenson wrote, "I will now make a confession: It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver ... the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you."

Frequent illness often kept him from school, although the misfortunes of his father's business may also have contributed. In 1867, Henley passed the Oxford Local Schools Examination and soon moved to London where he attempted to establish himself as a journalist.[3] However, his work over the next eight years was interrupted by long stays in the hospital because his right foot had also become diseased. Henley contested the diagnosis that a second amputation was the only means to save his life by seeking a consultation with the pioneering surgeon Joseph Lister (1827–1912) at The Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. After three years in the hospital (1873–75), during which Henley wrote and published the poems collected as In Hospital, he was discharged. Although Lister's treatment had not effected a complete cure, Henley enjoyed a relatively active life for nearly thirty more years.

On 22 January 1878, he married Hannah (Anna) Johnson Boyle (1855–1925), the youngest daughter of Edward Boyle, a mechanical engineer from Edinburgh, and his wife, Mary Ann née Mackie.[4]

Henley's sickly young daughter, Margaret Henley (born 4 September 1888), was immortalized by J. M. Barrie in his children's classic, Peter Pan:[5][6] Unable to speak clearly, young Margaret had called her friend Barrie her "fwendy-wendy", resulting in the use of "Wendy" in the book. Margaret did not survive long enough to read the book; she died on 11 February 1894 at the age of five and was buried at the country estate of her father's friend, Harry Cockayne Cust, in Cockayne Hatley, Bedfordshire.[5][6]

After his recovery, Henley earned his living as a publisher. In 1889 he became editor of the Scots Observer, an Edinburgh journal of the arts and current events. After its headquarters were transferred to London in 1891, it became the National Observer and remained under Henley's editorship until 1893. The paper had almost as many writers as readers, said Henley, and its fame was confined mainly to the literary class, but it was a lively and influential contributor to the literary life of its era. Henley had an editor's gift for identifying new talent, and "the men of the Scots Observer," said Henley affectionately, usually justified his support. Charles Whibley was Henley's friend and helped him edit the Observer.[7] The journal's outlook was conservative and often sympathetic to the growing imperialism of its time. Among other services to literature it published Rudyard Kipling's Barrack-Room Ballads.

Henley died of tuberculosis in 1903 at the age of 53 at his home in Woking, and, after cremation at the local crematorium his ashes were interred in his daughter's grave in the churchyard at Cockayne Hatley in Bedfordshire.[4][8]


Bust of Henley by Rodin
Henley's gravestone, Cockayne Hatley

Arguably his best-remembered work is the poem "Invictus", written in 1875. It is said that this was written as a demonstration of his resilience following the amputation of his foot due to tubercular infection. This passionate and defiant poem should be compared with his beautiful and contemplative acceptance of death and dying in the poem "Margaritae Sorori". The poems of In Hospital are also noteworthy as some of the earliest free verse written in England. With J.S. Farmer, Henley edited a seven volume dictionary of Slang and its analogues which inspired his two translations into thieves' slang of ballades by François Villon.

In 1890, Henley published Views and Reviews, a volume of notable criticisms, which he described as "less a book than a mosaic of scraps and shreds recovered from the shot rubbish of some fourteen years of journalism". The criticisms, covering a wide range of authors (all English or French save Heinrich Heine and Leo Tolstoy) were remarkable for their insight. In 1892, he published a second volume of poetry, named after the first poem, "The Song of the Sword" but re-titled "London Voluntaries" after another section in the second edition (1893). Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that he had not received the same thrill of poetry so intimate and so deep since George Meredith's "Joy of Earth" and "Love in the Valley". "I did not guess you were so great a magician. These are new tunes; this is an undertone of the true Apollo. These are not verse; they are poetry". During 1892, Henley also published three plays written with Stevenson: Beau Austin, Deacon Brodie and Admiral Guinea. In 1895, Henley's poem, "Macaire", was published in a volume with the other plays. Deacon Brodie was produced in Edinburgh in 1884 and later in London. Herbert Beerbohm Tree produced Beau Austin at the Haymarket on 3 November 1890.

Henley's poem, "Pro Rege Nostro", became popular during the First World War as a piece of patriotic verse. It contains the following refrain:

What have I done for you, England, my England?
What is there I would not do, England my own?

The poem and its sentiments have since been parodied by those unhappy with the jingoism they feel it expresses or the propagandistic use it is put to. "England, My England", a short story by D. H. Lawrence and also England, Their England the novel by A. G. Macdonell both use the phrase. It is also referred to in Alan Bennett's satirical play Habeas Corpus (1973).

While incarcerated on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela recited the poem "Invictus" to other prisoners and felt empowered by its message of self-mastery.[9][10] In the film Invictus (2009), produced and directed by Clint Eastwood, the poem is cited several times. It becomes the central inspirational gift from Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman, to Springbok rugby team captain François Pienaar, played by Matt Damon, in advance of the post-apartheid Rugby World Cup hosted in 1995 by South Africa and won by the underdog Springboks.[11]


  1. ^ John Connell, W. E. Henley, London, 1949, p.31
  2. ^ Connell dates this as 1865, but Ernest Mehew William Ernest Henley, (1849–1903), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004–08, suggests 1868–69 while Henley was being treated in St Bartholomew's Hospital, London
  3. ^ John Connell, W. E. Henley, London, 1949, p.35
  4. ^ a b Ernest Mehew, "Henley, William Ernest (1849–1903)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2006 accessed 7 Oct 2011 (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  5. ^ a b "The History of Wendy". Retrieved 2009-07-25. 
  6. ^ a b Winn, Christopher. I Never Knew That About England. 
  7. ^ Atkinson, Damian, ed. (2013). The Letters of William Ernest Henley to Charles Whibley, 1888-1903. 1 & 2. Edwin Mellen Press. ISBN 0-7734-4365-7. 
  8. ^ http://courses.wcupa.edu/fletcher/henley/bio.htm
  9. ^ Daniels, Eddie (1998) There and Back: Robben Island, 1964–1979. p.244. Mayibuye Books, 1998
  10. ^ Boehmer, Elleke (2008). "Nelson Mandela: a very short introduction". Oxford University Press. In 'Invictus', taken on its own, Mandela clearly found his Victorian ethic of self-mastery given compelling expression within the frame of a controlled rhyme scheme supported by strong, monosyllabic nouns. It was only a small step from espousing this poem to assuming a Victorian persona, as he could do in letters to his children. In ways they predictably found alienating, he liked to exhort them to ever-greater effort, reiterating that ambition and drive were the only means of escaping an 'inferior position' in life" 
  11. ^ IMdB page.


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