William Ernest Henley

William Ernest Henley

Infobox Writer
name = William Ernest Henley

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birthdate = 23 August 1849
birthplace = Gloucester, England
deathdate = death date and age|1903|7|11|1849|8|23
deathplace =
occupation = Poet, critic and editor
nationality = English
ethnicity =
citizenship =
education = The Crypt School, Gloucester
alma_mater =
period = c. 1870–1903
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notableworks = "Invictus"
spouse =
partner =
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influences =
influenced =

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William Ernest Henley (August 23, 1849 – July 11, 1903) was an English poet, critic and editor.


Henley was born at Gloucester and was the eldest of a family of six, five sons and a daughter. His father, William, was a bookseller and stationer who died in 1868 leaving young children and creditors. His mother, Mary Morgan, was descended from the poet and critic, Joseph Warton. From 1861-67 Henley was a pupil at the Crypt Grammar School (founded 1539). A Commission had recently attempted to revive the school by securing the brilliant and academically distinguished T. E. Brown (1830-1897) as headmaster. Brown's appointment was short-lived (c.1857-63) but was a 'revelation' for Henley because it introduced him to a poet and 'man of genius - the first I'd ever seen'. This was the start of a lifelong friendship and Henley wrote a glowing memorial 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". [John Connell, "W. E. Henley", London, 1949, p.31] From the age of 12 Henley suffered from tuberculosis of the bone leading to the amputation of his left leg below the knee either in 1865 or 1868-69. [Connell places this in 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] Frequent illness often kept him from school, although the fortunes of his father's business may also have contributed. In 1867, Henley passed the Oxford Local Schools Examination and soon afterwards moved to London where he attempted to establish himself as a journalist. [John Connell, "W. E. Henley", London, 1949, p.35] However, his work over the next eight years was interrupted by long periods in hospital because his right foot was also diseased. Henley fought the diagnosis that a second amputation was the only way to save his life by placing himself under the care of the pioneering surgeon Joseph Lister (1827-1912) at the The Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. After three years in hospital (1873-75), Henley was discharged. Lister's treatment had not effected a complete cure but enabled Henley to lead a relatively active life for nearly 30 years. His friend, Robert Louis Stevenson, based his "Treasure Island" character, Long John Silver, on Henley.Fact|date=October 2007

His literary connections also led to his sickly young daughter, Margaret Emma Henley (b. Sept. 04, 1888), being immortalised by J. M. Barrie in his children's classic "Peter Pan"Fact|date=October 2007. Unable to speak clearly, the young Margaret referred to Barrie as her "Friendy Wendy", leading to the introduction of the name Wendy. Alas, Margaret never read the book as she died on February 11th, 1894 at the age of 5 and was buried at the country estate of her father's friend, Harry Cockayne Cust, in Cockayne Hatley, Bedfordshire.

After his recovery Henley earned his living in publishing. In 1889 he became editor of the "Scots Observer", an Edinburgh journal on the lines of the old "Saturday Review" but inspired in every paragraph by Henley's vigorous and combative personality. It was transferred to London in 1891 as the "National Observer" and remained under Henley's editorship until 1893. Though, as Henley confessed, the paper had almost as many writers as readers, and its fame was mainly confined to the literary class, it was a lively and influential feature of the literary life of its time. Henley had the editor's great gift of discerning promise, and the "Men of the Scots Observer," as Henley affectionately and characteristically called his band of contributors, in most instances justified his insight. The paper found utterance for the growing imperialism of its day, and among other services to literature gave to the world Rudyard Kipling's "Barrack-Room Ballads"

Henley died at the age of 53 and was buried in the same churchyard as his daughter in Cockayne Hatley. His wife was later buried at the same site.


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.

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 and gusto. In 1892, he published a second volume of poetry, named after the first poem, "The Song of the Sword" but re-christened "London Voluntaries" after another section in the second edition (1893). 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". In 1892, Henley published also 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 November 3, 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 many people often 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.

External links

* [http://www.sanjeev.net/poetry/henley-william-ernest/index.html Poetry Archive: 137 poems of William Ernest Henley]


NAME = Henley, William Ernest
SHORT DESCRIPTION = British poet, critic and editor
DATE OF BIRTH = 23 August 1849
PLACE OF BIRTH = Gloucester, England
DATE OF DEATH = 11 July 1903

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