“I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.” — “Invictus”

Early life

William Ernest Henley (1849-1903), an influential editor, critic and poet, had a role in the late-Victorian period similar to that of Dr Samuel Johnson in the late eighteenth century. He was born in Gloucester as the eldest of a family of six (five sons and a daughter). His father, William Henley (1826-1868), a bookseller and stationer, died in poverty leaving his wife and young children with debts. His mother, Mary Morgan, descended from the family of the poet and critic Joseph Warton (1722-1800). One of his brothers, Edward John became a talented actor and another, Anthony Warton, was a landscape painter. Between 1861 and 1867 Henley attended the Crypt Crammar School at Gloucester. Its headmaster, Thomas Edward Brown (1830-1897), a noted poet and scholar, exerted a profound influence on the young Henley, lending him books and encouraging him to study literature. In 1867, Henley passed the local Oxford examination with an excellent result, but lack of financial means and ill-health made it impossible for him to begin his study. In 1869, Henley left Gloucester for London in order to seek employment. He soon obtained work as a freelance journalist.


W. E. Henley by Auguste Rodin. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]

As early as at the age of 12 Henley was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the bone, which led to the amputation of his left leg below the knee a few years later. In 1873, his other leg was also affected by tuberculosis, but thanks to the innovative treatment of Dr Joseph Lister, who used his new antiseptic surgical method at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, it was not amputated. Henley stayed almost two years under Dr Lister’s care in the Edinburgh Infirmary. During his long stay in the hospital, he began to write poetry which reflected his traumatic experiences as a patient. The famous critic Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) published some of them in the Cornhill Magazine. In January 1875, Stephen went to Edinburgh to deliver a lecture and visited Henley in hospital. He brought with him a young Scottish author, Robert Louis Stevenson(1850-1894), who became for a decade Henley’s closest friend and collaborator. Thanks to Stevenson’s efforts Henley was commissioned to contribute several articles on French literature to the Ninth Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It is interesting to note in passing that Robert Louis Stevenson modelled the most famous pirate in literature — Treasure Island's Long John Silver with his wooden leg — on his crippled friend Henley. However, their friendship was strained after Stevenson decided to leave for America in 1887.

In 1878, Henley married Anna Boyle, the younger sister of a fellow patient at the Infirmary. They loved each other tenderly and had a daughter, Margaret Emma, who died from cerebral meningitis in 1894 at the age of six years. She was immortalised as Wendy in J. M. Barrie’s classic novel for children, Peter Pan.

In spite of his illness, Henley was a strong and sociable man with boundless energy, excellent memory, enthusiasm and versatile mind. While he stayed in the Edinburgh Infirmary, he read a lot, taught himself French, Spanish, and German, and corresponded with men of letters. (Connell,16)

Poet and playwright

Henley published several books of poetry, but he is best remembered for the poem “Invictus” (1875), which reflects his resilient struggle with the deadly disease. Henley wrote more poems about his hospital experiences, but their stark realism was too difficult to accept by many Victorian readers. Paradoxically, as his biographer Jerome Hamilton Buckley wrote, “[b]y virtue of a single poem William Ernest Henley remains at once the most freely quoted and the most thoroughly neglected of Victorian lyrists.” (3) It was Leslie Stephen who launched Henley as a poet when he published 18 of Henley’s hospital poems in the Cornhill.

The first volume of Henley’s poetry appeared in 1888 as A Book of Verses and included the famous hospital poems. His subsequent books of poetry include The Song of the Sword and Other Verses (1892), reissued as London Voluntaries (1893), Poems, which included the revised versions of the two previous volumes, For England’s Sake: Verses and Songs in Time of War (1900), Hawthorn and Lavender (1901), and A Song of Speed (1903). These volumes elevated him to the first rank of late-Victorian poets. In 1897, Henley tried unsuccessfully to obtain nomination as Poet Laureate of England. Instead he received a Civil Service Pension of 225 pounds a year.

For a present-day reader, the series of twenty-eight poems that appeared In Hospital are probably most interesting of all Henley’s poetry . They are entirely different in form and content from the Decadent poems of the fin de siècle. Henley used a variety of poetic forms and techniques. His hospital poems significantly depart from the traditional themes and imagery of Victorian poetry. Some of them, it seems, have affinity in form with Gerard Manley Hopkins’ free-verse scansion, impressionistic observations and brevity of description. Although readers today associate Henley with “Invictus,” a poem that expresses the courage that brought him through great suffering, the hospital poems have more in common with T. S. Eliot of The Waste Land than with most earlier Victorian poetry. Here, for example, is “Operation”:

You are carried in a basket,
Like a carcase from the shambles,
To the theatre, a cockpit
Where they stretch you on a table.

Then they bid you close your eyelids,
And they mask you with a napkin,
And the anæsthetic reaches
Hot and subtle through your being.

And you gasp and reel and shudder
In a rushing, swaying rapture,
While the voices at your elbow
Fade — receding — fainter — farther.

Lights about you shower and tumble,
And your blood seems crystallising —
Edged and vibrant, yet within you
Racked and hurried back and forward.

Then the lights grow fast and furious,
And you hear a noise of waters,
And you wrestle, blind and dizzy,
In an agony of effort,

Till a sudden lull accepts you,
And you sound an utter darkness . . .
And awaken . . . with a struggle . . .
On a hushed, attentive audience.

Or these lines from “Vigil,” which describe the experience of lying awake in the dark:

LIVED on one's back,
In the long hours of repose
Life is a practical nightmare —
Hideous asleep or awake.

Shoulders and loins
Ache - - - !
Ache, and the mattress,
Run into boulders and hummocks, . . .
Far in the stillness a cat
Languishes loudly. A cinder
Falls, and the shadows
Lurch to the leap of the flame. The next man to me
Turns with a moan; and the snorer,
The drug like a rope at his throat,
Gasps, gurgles, snorts himself free, as the night-nurse,
Noiseless and strange,
Her bull's eye half-lanterned in apron,
(Whispering me, 'Are ye no sleepin' yet? )

They are written in the technique of interior monologue and reveal a patient’s impressions of the dull and tedious hospital atmosphere (“Waiting”, “Interior”), its staff (“Staff-Nurse: Old-Style”, “Lady Probationer”, “Staff-Nurse: New-Style”, “The Chief”, “House Surgeon”), adult fellow patients (“Enter Patient”, “Casualty”, “Suicide”) and children patients (“Children: Private Ward”), visitors (“Visitor”, “Apparition” — most likely the description of the poet’s friend, R. L. Stevenson), and reflections on life and death (“Before”, “After”, “Vigil”). The final and climactic poem, “Discharged”, reveals that the poet is finally carried out of the dehumanising hospital environment into “the wonderful world”.

Henley also tried his hand at drama. In collaboration with Robert Louis Stevenson he wrote four plays in the 1880s: Deacon Brodie, Beau Austin, Admiral Guinea and Macaire. However, with the exception of Beau Austin, a comic drama in four acts, the plays had poor reviews and Henley returned to poetry and criticism.

Political views

Although, as Buckley wrote, art and not politics was Henley’s main preoccupation (128), he held conservative and imperial political views. He was critical about Gladstone’s arguments for Irish Home Rule. Yeats, an Irish nationalist, not surprisingly described him as a “violent unionist and imperialist” (Buckley, 129). Henley gave vent to his conservative sympathies in an article published in the National Review:

Toryism, as I conceive it, is as much a matter of taste as a body of doctrine, and as much a mental attitude as a set of principles […] Toryism, to be plain, is in some sort a matter of aversions – one aversion is for that conspiracy of bad public breeding and individual prurience which “one may term popular culture.” [Buckley, 131]

Henley believed that conservatism matched ideally with the imperial idea. Paradoxically, in the manner of Thomas Carlyle and George Eliot, he identified conservatism with radicalism. Apprehensive of growing socialism in England under the disguise of Fabianism and the labour movement, Henley was in favour of Carlylean individualism and Benjamin Disraeli’s reformism. He strongly supported the imperial idea which advocated that the British Empire should lead the world to civilisation and protect Tory democracy.


William Henley had an exceptional editorial talent. He edited four different magazines in various periods of his life. In 1877, Henley became the editor of the short-lived magazine London, founded by George Glasgow Brown, a friend of his and of Stevenson. Henley published in it three parts of Stevenson’s earliest essays, Virginibus Puerisque, and The New Arabian Nights, acknowledged by some critics as the greatest achievement in English short story tradition. Next, from 1882 to 1886, he edited the illustrated monthly Magazine of Art, which included contributions of R. L. Stevenson, Richard Jefferies and J. Comyns Carr. In 1889, Henley was appointed editor of the Scots Observer (later known as the National Observer, after its removal to London in 1891). He edited it vigorously until 1893. It was then that Henley discovered Rudyard Kipling and published “The Barrack Room Ballads” in the National Observer.

As editor, Henley gathered around him a group of outstanding writers, including James M. Barrie, T. E. Brown, Joseph Conrad,Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Andrew Lang, Arthur Morrison, Gilbert Parker, George Warrington Steevens, Robert Louis Stevenson, G. S. Street, H. B. Marriott Watson, H. G. Wells, and William Butler Yeats.

Apart from editorial work in literary and art magazines, Henley edited works of literature. In 1892, Henley initiated editing of the invaluable series of Tudor Translations, which began with John Florio’s Montaigne and ended (after Henley’s death) with the Tudor Bible. In 1895, together with his associate on the National Observer, Charles Whibley, a prominent literary journalist and author, he published an anthology, The Book of English Prose. In collaboration with Thomas F. Henderson he edited The Complete Poetical Works of Robert Burns in 1897. In the Preface to this edition Henley praised Burns as the “poet of realism”. In 1898, he collaborated with George Wyndham (1863-1913), a writer and politician, on an edition of Wilfrid Blunt’s poems. In collaboration with J. S. Farmer Henley edited a seven volume dictionary of Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present (1904), which anticipated Eric Partridge’s famous Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English


As a critic, Henley contributed not only to journals he edited but also to the Athenaeum, the Saturday Review, Vanity Fair, St. James Gazette and the Pall Mall Gazette. In 1890, Henley published a book of criticism, Views and Reviews. Essays in Appreciation, which contains his reflections about popular writers and artists of the past and present. As a committed Francophile, Henley popularised in England the eminent French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Stéphane Mallarmé and other French writers and artists. Henley often attacked Aesthetes, Decadents and Socialists in his essays. He was instrumental in the counter-Decadent movement of the 1890s that emphasised virile activism as an alternative to effeminate aestheticism. As editor he published and reviewed favourably the early works of such writers as H. G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, Arthur Morrison and George Bernard Shaw, who were also opposed to the Decadent movement. However, it should be emphasised that Henley believed in artistic autonomy and as editor he allowed his contributors to form and express freely conservative or liberal opinions. Henley’s critical essays, in the tradition of Dr Johnson, are founded on his vast erudition and excellent literary taste.

Death and legacy

In 1902, Henley fell from a railway carriage. This accident caused the latent tuberculosis germ to awaken in his organism. He died on 11 July 1903, at the age of 53 and was buried next to his daughter’s grave in the churchyard in Cockayne Hatley, a small village in Bedfordshire. His wife was later buried at the same churchyard.

As the editor of several literary magazines Henley exerted a considerable influence on the literary culture of his time. He and his followers (known jokingly as the Henley Regatta) promoted realism and opposed Decadence in literature through his own essays and through the works of authors he published in the journals he edited. With the exception of “Invictus”, his poetry almost fell into undeserved oblivion, although his hospital poems anticipated modern poetry not only in form, as experiments in free verse containing abrasive narrative shifts and internal monologue, but also in subject matter. Through unadorned observation of life in the sickroom, Henley developed the motif of poet as a patient.

References and further reading

Buckley, Jerome Hamilton. William Ernest Henley: A Study in the Counter- Decadence of the Nineties. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1945.

Cohen, Edward H. The Henley-Stevenson Quarrel. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1974.

Connell, John. W. E. Henley. London: Constable, 1949.

Davidson, Donald. British Poetry of the Eighteen-Nineties. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran, 1937.

Frawley, Maria H. Invalidism and Identity in Nineteenth-century Britain. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Last modified 19 July 2011