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William Ernest Henley

William Ernest L. Henley
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 influential poet, critic and editor of the late-Victorian era in England that is spoken of as having as central a role in his time as Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century. 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. Moreover, 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 1
  • Career 2
    • Early career 2.1
    • Poetry 2.2
    • Publishing career 2.3
  • Personal life 3
  • Works 4
    • List of works 4.1
      • Edited volumes 4.1.1
      • Poetry 4.1.2
    • Discussion of works 4.2
  • In artistic cross-reference 5
  • In popular culture 6
  • Further reading 7
  • References and notes 8
  • External links 9

Early life and education

William Ernest Henley was born in 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.

Henley was a pupil at the 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). 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".[2]: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.[2]:35[3](subscription or UK public library membership required)[4] 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.


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.[5] 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."[5] 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."[5] Henley published many tens of poems in several volumes and editions, many selected for appearance by others for their impact. 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; 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."[5] While it has been observed that Henley's poetry "almost fell into undeserved oblivion,"[5] the appearance of "Invictus" as a continuing popular reference (see below) and the renewed availability of his work (e.g., 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.

Early career

Soon after passing the examination, Henley moved to London and attempted to establish himself as a journalist.[2]:35 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, seeking a consultation with the pioneering late 19th century surgeon Joseph Lister at The Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. Henley spent three years in hospital (1873–1875), during which he wrote and published the poems collected as In Hospital. Although Lister's treatment had not effected a complete cure, Henley enjoyed a relatively active life for nearly thirty years after his discharge.


Publishing career

After his recovery, Henley began by earning his living as a journalist and publisher. For a short period in 1877-1878, Henley was hired to edit The London, "a society paper,"[7] 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][7]

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 Observer.[8] 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

Henley married Hannah (Anna) Johnson Boyle on 22 January 1878, Hanna (1855–1925) was the youngest daughter of Edward Boyle, a mechanical engineer from Edinburgh, and his wife, Mary Ann née Mackie.[3](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.[9][10] 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.[9][10]

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.[3](subscription or UK public library membership required)[11]


List of works

Edited volumes

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

  • The London, 1877-1878, "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][7]


The following outlines the appearances of Henley's poems:

  • In Ballades and Rondeaus, Chants Royal, Sestinas, Villanelles, &c… (1888), compiled by Gleeson White,[7] 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 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.[7][12]
  • Hawthorn and Lavender, with Other Verses (1901), a collection entirely of Henley's,[13] 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.[13] 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."[13]

Discussion of works

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 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

song cycle Love Blows As the Wind Blows. 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?

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. Such phrases appeared in "England, My England", a short story by D. H. Lawrence, and also in England, Their England the novel by A. G. Macdonell. It is also referred to in Alan Bennett's satirical play Habeas Corpus (1973).

In popular culture

Matt Damon's Springbok rugby team captain François Pienaar, on the eve of the underdog Springboks' victory in the post-apartheid 1995 Rugby World Cup held in South Africa.

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.

Further reading

  • Carol Rumens, 2010, "Poem of the week: Waiting by W.E. Henley," The Guardian (online), January 11, 2010, see [12], 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 [13], 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 article on Henley.Victorian Web]
  • Edward H. Cohen, 1974, The Henley-Stevenson Quarrel, Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press. [Source appearing at article on Henley.Victorian Web]
  • John Connell, 1949, W. E. Henley, London, U.K.:Constable. [Source appearing at article on Henley.Victorian Web]
  • Donald Davidson, 1937, British Poetry of the Eighteen-Nineties, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran. [Source appearing at article on Henley.Victorian Web]
  • Maria H. Frawley, 2004, Invalidism and Identity in Nineteenth-century Britain, Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. [Source appearing at article on Henley.Victorian Web]

External links

  1. ^ a b c d e W.P. James, 1911, "Henley, William Ernest," in Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th ed. (Hugh Chisholm & Walter Alison Phillips, Eds.), Vol. 13, Project Gutenberg part 271, see [14], accessed 8 May 2015.
  2. ^ a b c John Connell, 1949, W. E. Henley, London:Constable, page numbers as indicated.
  3. ^ a b c Ernest Mehew, 2006, "William Ernest Henley, (1849–1903)," in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [2004 Ed.], Oxford, UK:OUP, see May 2006 online edn., [15], accessed 8 May 2015.(subscription or UK public library membership required)
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ a b c d e Andrzej Diniejko, 2011, "William Ernest Henley: A Biographical Sketch," at Victorian Web (online), updated July 19, 2011, see [16], accessed 9 May 2015.
  6. ^ Anon., 2015, "Books by Henley, William Ernest (sorted by popularity)," at Project Gutenberg (online), see [17], accessed 9 May 2015.
  7. ^ a b c d e Gleeson White, Ed. 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, and 288-290, London, England:Walter Scott Ltd., see [18]; Project Gutenberg online edition, see [19], accessed 8 May 2015.
  8. ^ Atkinson, Damian, ed. (2013). The Letters of William Ernest Henley to Charles Whibley, 1888-1903. 1 & 2. Edwin Mellen Press.  
  9. ^ a b Christopher Winn, 2012, "I Never Knew That About England," Londond, U.K.:Random House, ISBN 1448146062, pp. 3-4, see [20], accessed 9 May 2015.
  10. ^ a b "The History of Wendy". Retrieved 2009-07-25. 
  11. ^
  12. ^ 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."
  13. ^ 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 [21] and [22], accessed 9 May 2015.
  14. ^ Boehmer, Elleke (2008). Nelson Mandela: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, U.K.: 
  15. ^ Daniels, Eddie (1998). There and Back: Robben Island, 1964–1979. Belleville, South Africa: 

References and notes


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