Henley, William Ernest 1849-1903

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HENLEY, William Ernest 1849-1903


Born August 23, 1849, in Gloucester, England; died July 11, 1903, in Woking, England; son of William (a bookseller) and Emma (Morgan) Henley; married Anna Boyle, 1878; children: Margaret.


Editor of journals London, 1877-79, Pen, 1880, Magazine of Art, 1881-86, Scots Observer (later National Observer), 1888-94, and New Review, 1894-97.


Honorary doctorate, University of Edinburgh, 1893.


(With Robert Louis Stevenson) Deacon Brodie, privately printed, 1880, published in Three Plays, 1892.

(With Robert Louis Stevenson) Admiral Guinea, privately printed (Edinburgh, Scotland), 1884, published in Three Plays, 1892.

(With Robert Louis Stevenson) Beau Austin, privately printed (Edinburgh, Scotland), 1884, published in Three Plays, 1892.

(With Robert Louis Stevenson) Macaire, privately printed (Edinburgh, Scotland), 1885, published in Plays, 1921.

A Book of Verses, Nutt (London, England), 1888, Scribner & Welford (New York, NY), 1889.

Views and Reviews: Essays in Appreciation, Scribner (New York, NY), 1890.

(Coeditor, with John S. Farmer) Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present, seven volumes, [London, England], 1890–1904.

Lyra Heroica: A Book of Verse for Boys, Scribner (New York, NY), 1891.

(With Robert Louis Stevenson) Three Plays: Deacon Brodie, Beau Austin, Admiral Guinea, Nutt (London, England), 1892.

The Song of the Sword and Other Verses, Nutt (London, England), 1892, revised edition published as London Voluntaries and Other Verses, 1893.

A Book of English Prose, Methuen (London, England), 1894.

Robert Burns, His Life, Genius, Achievement, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1897.

English Lyrics, Methuen (London, England), 1897.

London Types, illustrated by William Nicholson, Macmillan (London, England), 1898.

Quatrains: Written for Nicholson's "London Types," Heinemann (New York, NY), 1898.

Poems, Nutt (London, England), 1898, Scribner (New York, NY), 1904.

Hawthorn and Lavender: Songs and Madrigals, Heinemann (London, England), 1899.

For England's Sake: Verses and Songs in Time of War, Nutt (London, England), 1900.

A Song of Speed, Nutt (London, England), 1903.

Echoes of Life and Death: Forty-seven Lyrics, T. B. Mosher (Portland, ME), 1908.

In Hospital, T. B. Mosher (Portland, ME), 1908.

The Works of W. E. Henley, seven volumes, Nutt (London, England), 1908.

Rhymes and Rhythms and Arabian Nights' Entertainments, T. B. Mosher (Portland, ME), 1909.

(With Robert Louis Stevenson) Plays: Deacon Brodie, Beau Austin, Admiral Guinea, Robert Macaire, Macmillan (London, England), 1921.

Essays—Fielding, Macmillan (London, England), 1921.

W. E. Henley, E. Benn (London, England), 1932.

De V. Payen-Payne, editor, Some Letters of William Ernest Henley, privately published (Chelsea, England), 1933.

Damian Atkinson, editor, The Selected Letters of William Ernest Henley, Ashgate (Brookfield, VT), 1999.


British poet, essayist, and dramatist William Ernest Henley was most influential in his role as literary critic and editor. As editor of the journals London, Pen, Magazine of Art, Scots Observer (later National Observer), and New Review, Henley was instrumental in the early success of British writers such as H. G. Wells, Thomas Hardy, and George Bernard Shaw. While his own drama and poetry have since gone out of literary fashion, the influence Henley had on English literature continues to be acknowledged by scholars.

Henley was born on August 23, 1849, in Gloucester, England. The son of lower-class parents, he contracted tubercular disease as a child, resulting in the amputation of one of his feet. After spending ten months at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London, he was finally discharged. He stayed in London, and tried to make a living as a freelance writer and as an employee of Period, a small journal. Health problems forced Henley to leave London in 1872, after which he underwent a sea-water treatment for his badly infected foot. Fearing that amputation was imminent, he went to Edinburgh in August of 1893 to consult with physician Joseph Lister. Lister was experimenting with aseptic surgery, a practice opposed by most physicians of the time, and he admitted Henley to the Royal Infirmary.

Henley's stay in the Royal Infirmary, which ended up lasting from August 1873 to April 1875, had a profound impact on his life. The treatments were painful, but this pain was balanced by other events at the Royal Infirmary. Henley fell in love with nineteen-year-old Anna Boyle, the sister of a man with whom he shared a room. Anna Boyle, and the two married four years later. While hospitalized Henley also passed the time writing poems that were accepted for publication in the July 1875 issue of Cornhill magazine. Cornhill's editor introduced Henley to two contemporaries of the young poet: Charles Baxter, a lawyer, and writer Robert Louis Stevenson. These two men greatly influenced Henley's life, as evidenced by the dedication in Henley's A Book of Verses to "Dear Charles," and Henley's many collaborations with Stevenson in the years to come.

After his release from the Royal Infirmary, Henley stayed in Edinburgh to be close to Baxter, Stevenson, and Boyle. He worked as a freelance writer, but eventually left for London in 1876 in pursuit of a larger income. It was at this point that Henley first started editing magazines, beginning with the weekly London, which closed about a year after Henley's appointment. That was followed by work on the monthly Pen. In 1878, Henley married Boyle, though she remained in Edinburgh for a time due to Henley's poor financial status. In late 1881 Henley became editor of the Magazine of Art, working hard to encourage new painters, sculptors, and writers.

After editing that magazine for about five years, Henley resigned in 1886. He again tried to live as a freelance writer, attempting to sell poems, lyrics, book reviews, and art criticism. Penning the less-than-successful play Mephisto in 1887, he was undaunted by its failure. Between 1887 and 1888 Henley collaborated with Stevenson on four plays, Deacon Brodie, Beau Austin, Admiral Guinea, and Macaire, although these plays proved to be only slightly more successful than Mephisto.

In 1888 Henley helped found and became the editor of the Scots Observer, a conservative journal. He also published his first book of poetry, A Book of Verses, and had a daughter, Margaret. In a review of Henley's verse for Woman's World, Irish writer Oscar Wilde commented: "His little Book of Verse … reveals to us an artist who is seeking to find new methods of expression, and who has not merely a delicate sense of beauty and a brilliant fantastic wit, but a real passion also for what is horrible, ugly, or grotesque."

Among the poems in A Book of Verses is Henley's most well-known work, "Invictus." Its last lines read: "It matters not how strait the gate/How charged with punishment the scroll,/ I am the master of my fate,/ I am the captain of my soul." Scorned by most modern critics, the poem is nonetheless seen as a strong expression of strength and stamina in the face of overwhelming odds. Joseph M. Flora's response in his William Ernest Henley is representative of what many critics have said, "The now very public 'Invictus' … started as a very personal poem—and it suggests a direction in which all of his verse and life might have gone if he had not had something in himself … to warn him against too great egocentricity."

In 1890 the Scots Observer moved to London and was renamed the National Observer. That year also saw the publication of Henley's Views and Reviews, which greatly enhanced its author's reputation. Two years later Henley published The Song of the Sword and Other Verses, a startlingly nationalistic and imperialistic collection of poetry. Alliteration and assonance provide much of the poetry's appeal, as in these lines from "To James McNeill Whistler," "Gloom out of gloom uncoiling into gloom,/ The River, jaded and forlorn,/ Welters and wanders wearily—wretchedly—on." London Voluntaries and Other Verses, which came out the next year, is a modified version of The Song of the Sword and Other Verses.

The year 1894 was a tragic one for Henley, who lost his six-year-old daughter to cerebral meningitis. He resigned from the National Observer and took refuge in Paris, where several months later he received the news that Stevenson had died. In December of 1894 Henley returned to London to edit the New Review.

A collection of verse from his first two poetry books was published as Poems in 1898. Two years later Henley published For England's Sake: Verses and Songs in Time of War, a hawkish collection of militaristic poems. "Pro Rege Nostro" reads, "What have I done for you, England, my England?/ What is there I would not do,/ England, my own?" 1901's Hawthorn and Lavender, with Other Verses was quite dissimilar, focusing on love, sadness and joy. After his death on July 11, 1903, Henley was remembered as a free verse poet, dignified critic, and supporter of the arts.



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

Cornford, Leslie Cope, William Ernest Henley, Constable (London, England), 1913.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 9: British Poets, 1880-1914, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1983.

Flora, Joseph M., William Ernest Henley, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1970.

Gross, John, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters: A Study of the Idiosyncratic and the Humane in Modern Literature, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1969.

Noyes, Alfred, Some Aspects of Modern Poetry, Stokes (New York, NY), 1924.

The Penguin Companion to English Literature, McGraw (New York, NY), 1971.

Pinto, Vivian de Sola, Crisis in English Poetry: 1880-1940, second edition, Hutchinson's University Library (London, England), 1955, pp. 13-35.

Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Volume 8, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1982.

Williamson, Kennedy, W. E. Henley: A Memoir, Shaylor, 1930.


Bibliophile, March, 1908.

Fortnightly Review, August 1, 1892, pp. 182-192.

Four Decades of Poetry: 1890-1930, January, 1979, pp. 145-152.

London Mercury, June, 1921.

Quarterly Review, January, 1922, pp. 101-112.

Saturday Review, June 8, 1895; May 11, 1901.

Sewanee Review, October-December, 1946, pp. 716-720.

Woman's World (England), December, 1888, Oscar Wilde, review of A Book of Verses, pp. 90-100.*

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