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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
William Ernest Henley (1849–1903)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
FOR an author of reputation so extended, Mr. Henley’s work is singularly limited in amount, consisting only of a few small volumes of poetry and essays. These books, however, represent a wide range of study and thought. William Ernest Henley was born in Gloucester, England, in 1849, and was educated in his native city. In 1875 he began to write for the London magazines, and edited for two years a short-lived journal called London, in which many of his verses first appeared. In 1889 he became editor of the Scots Observer (now the National Observer), and afterwards of the New Review, published in London, where he lives. This monthly is representative of the younger schools and late developments in literature.  1
  His critical essays contributed to the Saturday Review, the Athenæum, and other journals, were published in 1890 as ‘Views and Reviews.’ In 1873 appeared ‘In Hospital: Rhymes and Rhythms,’ and in 1888 a small ‘Book of Verses,’ followed by ‘The Song of the Sword’ (1892), ‘Poems’ (1898), ‘For England’s Sake’ (1900), ‘Hawthorne and Lavender’ (1901), ‘A Song of Speed’ (1903). ‘Lyra Heroica’ and other English Anthologies were prepared by him; and he also wrote with Robert Louis Stevenson a volume of plays, published in 1893, of which ‘Beau Austin’ was acted at the Haymarket Theatre with great success. With Stevenson he published also ‘Macaire’ (1895), a melodramatic farce, which is a new version of the famous old harlequinade.  2
  The ‘Hospital’ verses are unconventional, bold to the verge of daring, and belong perhaps rather to the field of pathology than of poetry. Surgeon’s lint and antiseptics cannot be made attractive lyrical themes. Yet often there is vivid, if somber, imagination in this series. Fine is the skill with which Henley, turning from these modern eccentricities, produces old French forms of verse, polished with the most delicate precision, and fancifully embellished. In the division called ‘Life and Death’ the poems are full of depth and beauty, and now and again one comes on a perfect song. In ‘The Song of the Sword’ his many-colored mind produced work of a various character. The first part is an unrhymed rhythmical piece of declamation, suggestive of the saga, in which the sword speaks out of its bold heart; the second group, entitled ‘London Voluntaries,’ has placed Henley’s name among those poets who are pre-eminently associated with London streets and scenes. This poem-group, describing the city at various times of the year and day, has been compared to Whistler’s studies of the world’s greatest capital. Here is the same vivid drawing, the same impression of space and distance, and the same emphasis of the personality of the city. Henley’s word pictures show how accurate is the comparison:—
                  “See the batch of boats
Here at the stairs, washed in the fresh-sprung beam!
  And those are barges that were goblin floats,
Black, hag-steered, fraught with devilry and dream!
  And in the piles the waters frolic clear,
The ripples into loose rings wander and flee,
  And we—we can behold, that could but hear
    The ancient River singing as he goes
New-mailed in morning to the ancient Sea.”
  3
  In the final division, called ‘Rhymes and Rhythms,’ are many pieces of striking originality and lovely musical quality, our second poetical selection affording an illustration. It is interesting to compare Henley’s treatment of London with that of Wordsworth’s in his great sonnet ‘On Westminster Bridge,’ in which he looks upon a city that
            “doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning.”
  4
  Henley’s critical qualities have been compared by Marriott Watson to “the flare of an electric light.” “There are queer patches of blackness outside the path of the illumination,” he says, “passages of darkness along the angles; but within these confines the white light cuts its way rudely, sharply, and with pitiless severity. Along the sphere of the irradiation the white flare is merciless in its scrutiny; every fault and flaw is picked out as by magic, every virtue is assigned its value.” This however gives but one side, the acidulous, biting side, of Henley’s genius. At times, as in the wonderfully fine closing sentences of the prose selection herewith given, he is a prose poet writing English of music, majesty, and imaginative splendor.  5
  Henley died at Woking, England, on July 12th, 1903. A collected edition of his works in seven volumes appeared in 1908.  6
 
 
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