William Ernest Henley

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
William Ernest Henley
William Ernest Henley young.jpg
Born23 August 1849
Gloucester, England
Died11 July 1903(1903-07-11) (aged 53)
Woking, England
OccupationPoet, critic, and editor
EducationThe Crypt School, Gloucester
Periodc. 1870–1903
Notable works"Invictus"

William Ernest Henley (23 August 1849 – 11 July 1903) was an English poet, critic and editor of the late-Victorian era in England who is spoken of as having as central a role in his time as Samuel Johnson had in the eighteenth century. He is remembered most often for his 1875 poem "Invictus", a piece which recurs in popular awareness (e.g., see the 2009 Clint Eastwood film, Invictus). It is one of his hospital poems from early battles with tuberculosis and is said to have developed the artistic motif of poet as a patient, and to have anticipated modern poetry in form and subject matter.

As an editor of a series of literary magazines and journals—with right to choose contributors, and to offer his own essays, criticism, and poetic works—Henley, like Johnson, is said to have had significant influence on culture and literary perspectives in the late-Victorian period.

Early life and education[edit]

William Ernest Henley was born in Gloucester, England on August 23, 1849,[1] to mother, Mary Morgan, a descendent of poet and critic Joseph Warton, and father, William, a bookseller and stationer. William Ernest was the oldest of six children, five sons and a daughter; his father died in 1868, and was survived by his wife and young children.[2]

Henley was a pupil at the Crypt School, Gloucester between 1861 and 1867. A commission had recently attempted to revive the school by securing as headmaster the brilliant and academically distinguished Thomas Edward Brown (1830–1897).[2] 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".[3]:31

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.[3]:35[4][5] 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.[2] 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.


The sum total of Henley's professional and artistic efforts is said to have made him an influential voice in late Victorian England, perhaps with a role as central in his time as that of Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century.[2] As an editor of a series of literary magazines and journals (that came with the right to choose each issue's contributors, as well as to offer his own essays, criticism, and poetic works), Henley, like Johnson, is said to have "exerted a considerable influence on the literary culture of his time."[2]

As Andrzej Diniejko notes, Henley and the "Henley Regatta" (the name by which his followers were humorously referred) "promoted realism and opposed Decadence" through their own works, and, in Henley's case, "through the works... he published in the journals he edited."[2] Henley published many tens of poems in several volumes and editions, many selected for appearance by others for their impact.[citation needed] He is remembered most often for his 1875 poem "Invictus," one of his "hospital poems" that were composed during his isolation as a consequence of early, life-threatening battles with tuberculosis;[citation needed] this set of works, one of several types and themes he engaged during his career, are said to have developed the artistic motif of "poet as a patient", and to have anticipated modern poetry "not only in form, as experiments in free verse containing abrasive narrative shifts and internal monologue, but also in subject matter."[2]

While it has been observed that Henley's poetry "almost fell into undeserved oblivion,"[2] the appearance of "Invictus" as a continuing popular reference and the renewed availability of his work, especially through the Project Gutenberg effort[6] have meant that his significant influence on culture and literary perspectives in the late-Victorian period have not been forgotten.[citation needed]

Early career[edit]

William Ernest Henley.

Soon after passing the examination, Henley moved to London and attempted to establish himself as a journalist.[3]:35 His work over the next eight years was interrupted by long stays in hospitals, because his right foot had also become diseased.[7]:129 Henley contested the diagnosis that a second amputation was the only means to save his life, seeking treatment from the pioneering late 19th-century surgeon Joseph Lister at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, commencing in August 1873.[7]:129

Henley spent three years in hospital (1873–1875), during which he was visited by Leslie Stephen and Robert Louis Stevenson and wrote and published the poems collected as In Hospital.[7]:135 Although Lister's treatment had not effected a complete cure, Henley enjoyed a relatively active life for nearly thirty years after his discharge.[citation needed]

Publishing career[edit]

After his recovery, Henley began by earning his living as a journalist and publisher. For a short period in 1877–78, Henley was hired to edit The London, "a society paper,"[8] and "a journal of a type more usual in Paris than London, written for the sake of its contributors rather than of the public."[1] In addition to his inviting its articles and editing all content, Henley anonymously contributed tens of poems to the journal, some of which have been termed "brilliant" (later published in a compilation from Gleeson White, see below).[1][8]

In 1889 Henley 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 Ana Siken.[9][page needed] 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.

Personal life[edit]

Henley married Hannah (Anna) Johnson Boyle (1855–1925) on 22 January 1878. She was the youngest daughter of Edward Boyle, a mechanical engineer from Edinburgh, and his wife, Mary Ann née Mackie.[4](subscription or UK public library membership required)

The couple gave birth to a daughter, Margaret Henley (born 4 September 1888). She was a sickly child, and became immortalized by J. M. Barrie in his children's classic, Peter Pan.[10][11][better source needed] 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.[10][11][better source needed]

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](subscription or UK public library membership required)[12]


List of works[edit]

Edited volumes[edit]

The following outlines editorial positions known to have been held by Henley:

  • The London, 1877–78, "a society paper" he edited for this short period, and to which he contributed "a brilliant series of… poems" which were only later attributed publicly to him in a published compilation from Gleeson White (see below).[1][8]


The following outlines the appearances of Henley's poems:

  • In Ballades and Rondeaus, Chants Royal, Sestinas, Villanelles, &c… (1888), compiled by Gleeson White,[8] including 30 of Henley's works, a "selection of poems in old French forms."[1] The poems were mostly produced by Henley while editing The London in 1877-1878, but also included a few works unpublished or from other sources (Belgravia, Magazine of Art); appearing were a dozen of his ballads, including "Of Dead Actors" and "Of the Nothingness of Things," his rondels "Four Variations" and "The Ways of Death," ten of his Sicilian octaves including "My Love to Me" and "If I were King," a triolet by the same name, three villanelles including "Where's the Use of Sighing," and a pair of burlesques.[8][13]
  • Hawthorn and Lavender, with Other Verses (1901), a collection entirely of Henley's,[14] with the title major work, and 16 additional poems, including a dedication to his wife (and epilogue, both penned in Worthing), the collection is composed of 4 sections, the first, the title piece "Hawthorn and Lavender" in 50 parts over 65 pages.[14] The second section is of 13 short poems, called "London Types," including examples from "Bus-Driver" to "Beefeater" to "Barmaid." The third section contains "Three Prologues" associated with theatrical works that Henley supported, including "Beau Austin " (by Henley and Robert Louis Stevenson, that played at Haymarket Theatre in late 1890), "Richard Savage" (by J. M. Barrie and H. B. Marriott Watson that played at Criterion Theatre in spring 1891, and "Admiral Guinea" (by again by Henley and Stevenson, that played at Avenue Theatre in late 1897). The fourth and final section contains 5 pieces, mostly shorter, and mostly pieces "In Memoriam."[14]

Discussion of works[edit]

William Ernest 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 John Stephen 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.

In artistic cross-reference[edit]

George Butterworth set four of Henley's poems to music in his 1912 song cycle Love Blows As the Wind Blows.[15] Henley's poem, "Pro Rege Nostro", became popular during the First World War as a piece of patriotic verse, containing the following refrain

What have I done for you, England, my England?
What is there I would not do, England my own?[16]

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

In popular culture[edit]

Nelson Mandela recited the poem "Invictus" to other prisoners incarcerated alongside him at Robben Island, some believe because it expressed in its message of self-mastery Mandela's own Victorian ethic.[17][18] This historical event was captured in fictional form in the Clint Eastwood film Invictus (2009), wherein the poem is referenced several times. In that fictionalized account, the poem becomes a central inspirational gift from actor Morgan Freeman's Mandela to Matt Damon's Springbok rugby team captain Francois Pienaar, on the eve of the underdog Springboks' victory in the post-apartheid 1995 Rugby World Cup held in South Africa.[citation needed]

In Chapter Two of her first volume of autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou writes in passing that she "enjoyed and respected" Henley's works among others such as Poe's and Kipling's, but had no "loyal passion" for them.

Joe Orton English playwright of the 1960s, based the title and theme of his breakthrough play The Ruffian on the Stair, which was broadcast on BBC radio in 1964, on the opening lines of Henley's poem Madame Life's a Piece in Bloom.:

Madam Life's a piece in bloom
Death goes dogging everywhere:
She's the tenant of the room,
He's the ruffian on the stair.

Further reading[edit]

  • Carol Rumens, 2010, "Poem of the week: Waiting by W.E. Henley," The Guardian (online), January 11, 2010, see [4], accessed 9 May 2015. [Quote: "Henley's 'Waiting,' from his 'In Hospital' sequence of poems far outshines his better known 'Invictus.'"]
  • Andrzej Diniejko, 2011, "William Ernest Henley: A Biographical Sketch," at Victorian Web (online), updated July 19, 2011, see [5], accessed 9 May 2015.
  • Jerome Hamilton Buckley, 1945, William Ernest Henley: A Study in the Counter-Decadence of the Nineties, Princeton, NJ:Princeton University Press. [Source appearing at Victorian Web article on Henley.
  • Edward H. Cohen, 1974, The Henley-Stevenson Quarrel, Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press. [Source appearing at Victorian Web article on Henley.
  • John Connell, 1949, W. E. Henley, London, U.K.:Constable. [Source appearing at Victorian Web article on Henley.
  • Donald Davidson, 1937, British Poetry of the Eighteen-Nineties, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran. [Source appearing at Victorian Web article on Henley.
  • Maria H. Frawley, 2004, Invalidism and Identity in Nineteenth-century Britain, Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. [Source appearing at Victorian Web article on Henley.

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Henley, William Ernest". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.

References and notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e James, William Price. Encyclopædia Britannica 11th ed. (Hugh Chisholm & Walter Alison Phillips, Eds.), Vol. 13 Slice 3. p. 271. Retrieved 8 May 2015.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Diniejko, Andrzej (19 July 2011). "William Ernest Henley: A Biographical Sketch". The Victorian Web. Retrieved 9 November 2016.
  3. ^ a b c John Connell, 1949, W. E. Henley, London:Constable, page numbers as indicated.
  4. ^ a b c Mehew, Ernest. "William Ernest Henley, (1849–1903)," in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [2004 Ed.], Oxford, UK". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. Retrieved 8 May 2015. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  5. ^ Connell, op. cit., dates this as 1865, but Mehew, op. cit. suggests 1868–69, in the period when Henley was being treated in St. Bartholomew's Hospital, London.
  6. ^ "Books by Henley, William Ernest (sorted by popularity)". Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 9 May 2015.
  7. ^ a b c Cohen, Edward (April 2004). "THE SECOND SERIES OF W. E. HENLEY'S HOSPITAL POEMS". Yale University Library Gazette. 78 (3/4): 128–150. JSTOR 40859569.
  8. ^ a b c d e White, Gleeson (1888). "Ballades and Rondeaus, Chants Royal, Sestinas, Villanelles, &c.: Selected with Chapter on the Various Forms (William Sharp, Gen. Series Ed.)". pp. xix, 16–22, 77–82, 139–141, 169–173, 221, 251–253, 288–290. Retrieved 8 May 2015.
  9. ^ 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.[page needed]
  10. ^ a b Christopher Winn, 2012, "I Never Knew That About England," Londond, U.K.:Random House, ISBN 1448146062, pp. 3-4, see [1], accessed 9 May 2015.
  11. ^ a b "The History of Wendy". Archived from the original on 18 March 2009. Retrieved 25 July 2009.[better source needed]
  12. ^ http://courses.wcupa.edu/fletcher/henley/bio.htm
  13. ^ About the selection of so many of his works, Gleeson White, 1888, op cit., states: "In a society paper, The London, a brilliant series of these poems appeared during 1877-8. After a selection was made for this volume, it was discovered that they were all by one author, Mr. W. E. Henley, who most generously permitted the whole of those chosen to appear, and to be for the first time publicly attributed to him. The poems themselves need no apology, but in the face of so many from his pen, it is only right to explain the reason for the inclusion of so large a number."
  14. ^ a b c William Ernest Henley, 1901, Hawthorn and Lavender, with Other Verses, New York, NY:Harper and Bros. (orig, London, England:David Nutt at the Sign of the Phœnix in Long Acre), see [2] and [3], accessed 9 May 2015.
  15. ^ "Love blows as the wind blows". The LiederNet Archive. Retrieved 7 November 2016.
  16. ^ "Pro Rege Nostro By William Ernest Henley". bartleby.com. Retrieved 7 November 2016.
  17. ^ Boehmer, Elleke (2008). Nelson Mandela: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, U.K.:OUP. p. 157. ISBN 0192803018. Retrieved 9 May 2015. Quote: 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.
  18. ^ Daniels, Eddie (1998). There and Back: Robben Island, 1964–1979. Belleville, South Africa:Mayibuye Books. p. 244. ISBN 1868083802.

External links[edit]