Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by Charles Whibley
William Ernest Henley (18491903)
[W. E. Henley, born 1849, eldest son of William Henley, a Gloucester bookseller, educated at the Crypt School, Gloucester, under T. E. Brown, afterwards well known as a Clifton master and as the Manx poet. From his twelfth year Henley suffered from a tuberculous disease; one foot was amputated before he was twenty; then he went into hospital at Edinburgh for nearly two years, where the other leg was saved by the skill of Sir Joseph Lister. In 1877 he was well enough to begin a literary life in London, where he wrote criticism for many papers and magazines, and edited the Magazine of Art (18826) and the Scots Observer (at Edinburgh), which became the National Observer in 1891. From time to time he had also been writing verse, which he collected and published under various titles between 1888 and 1892, when the London Voluntaries appeared. With R. L. Stevenson he joined in writing four plays, of which Beau Austin and Deacon Brodie became well known on the English and American stage. His work as an editor of old and new literature was also varied and abundant, reaching from the Edinburgh folio of Shakespeare to the collected poems of his old teacher, T. E. Brown. Henley married Miss Anna Boyle in 1878, and was the father of one child, Margaret, who was the Reddy of J. M. Barries Sentimental Tommy; she died at five years old, in 1894. Nine years later, in 1903, Henley died at Woking, having achieved, though a lifelong invalid, a vast quantity of literary work, and became a kind of leader of a whole school of critics, literary, æsthetic, and in the wider sense political.]
OF W. E. Henley it may be said more truthfully than of any other poet that he learned in suffering what he taught in song. An enforced visit to the Old Infirmary of Edinburgh was for him the active beginning of his poetic life. With the simple faith which always inspired him, he sought in a strange city the one surgeon of his trust. He found what was no less precious than the healing hand of Lister, experience and literary comradeship. The hospital, cold, naked, clean, half-workhouse and half-jail, was his University. Within its grey walls he made himself master of French and Spanish and laid the foundations of a sound scholarship. In the transformed back-kitchen where he lay he studied many literatures, he knit closely many friendships. Thence he sent his first essays in verse to the Cornhill Magazine; there Leslie Stephen and Robert Louis Stevenson discovered him. Yet it was not they who first recognized his talent. It had been his good fortune to learn the rudiments at the Crypt School of Gloucester, from T. E. Brown, who encouraged him in his boyhood with good counsel and a gift of books. From T. E. Browns point of view, Henley wrote years afterwards, the Gloucester episode was, I take it, an unpleasing and ridiculous experiment. From mine it was an unqualified success: since it made him known to me, and discovered me the beginnings, the true material, of myself.
Thus it was that when he came to Edinburgh, Henley was already dedicated to letters. He had attempted both prose and verse. He had written the parodies of Swinburne which were incident to the youth of his generation. He had made a brief acquaintanceship with Fleet Street. But the Old Infirmary gave him a new vision of things and a fresh style. His series In Hospital showed him at once a finished craftsman, a stern and sure critic of his own work. In unrhymed verse, economical of phrase and sternly castigated, he recorded, with abundant cheerfulness and without a hint of despair, the sights and sounds of the grim Infirmary. When after many years of hopeless waiting he got these first poems published, they were described in the jargon of the hour as realistic. Their material was real enoughthat is true; but so keen was Henleys sense of selection, that the mere hint of realism was an injustice. He was but turning into poetry with a poets skill the patiently observed life about him, and sacrificing nothing of his art to the realists love of facts. He watched the hardship and squalor of the hospital with equanimity, but, as Meredith has said, when he was restored to companionship with his fellows one involuntary touch occurs in his verse to tell of the suffering he had passed through. He rejoiced in the smell of the streets. There we have the lover of life arising from the depths. Such was the man.
He was, as I have said, a stern critic of himself. He had no love of short cuts or easy methods. He obeyed the injunction of Horace, and kept his poems long under the file. Above all he was the faithful servant of tradition, and when he wrote in unrhymed verse he was conscious of the chain which bound him to the past, and held in his memory the noble choruses of Samson Agonistes. In his love of long wordsthe irreclaimable menace of the sea, the unimagined vastitudes beyond, the unanswering generations of the deadhe proved himself a true pupil of Milton. Yet so near were his thought and vision to the true world of common things that he took a frank delight in familiar images. The moon for him is a clowns face flourd for work, November is the old lean widow. The class in the hospital hurrying through the ward after the chief suggests to him
Seen from behind round a conjurer
Doing his pitch in the street.
Still more greatly daring he compares the lighthouse, the guide to the stalwart ships, with
Thus he touched with a vivid life, all his own, the old harmonies, and was amply justified of his courage. But it was London and its riverO River of Journeys, River of Dreamswhich inspired him to his noblest poems. The London Voluntaries show most clearly the magician that he was. Light of the skies playing upon smoky vapour, city scenery, city crowdsthese were the motives of his Voluntaries, and he handled them like a musician. For the rest, in whatever he wrote of prose or verse he breathed the spirit of hope and energy. With a serene submission, he acknowledges himself a servant of the Will, and, unafraid before the menace of the years, gives thanks for his unconquerable soul. Such, briefly, is the simple gospela cheerful, sometimes defiant, acceptance of destinys decreeswhich he preaches with fervency and a constant heart, nowhere more eloquently than in the poem Out of the night that covers me, already become a classic of our speech. He showed his love of battle not only in his Song of the Sword, but in a constant readiness to fight for his beliefs and his ideals. In Pro Rege Nostro he sounded the note of patriotism as few have sounded it. And as he asked courage of others, so he showed a rare courage himself. He never permitted his infirmity to hamper his life, he never confessed even to his own ear that he was a sick man. In criticism he combined enthusiasm with wakeful judgment. So widely catholic was his taste, that he was ready to welcome and approve the boldest experiment, and it will be remembered of him gladly that his hand was ever the hand of a helper.