William Ernest Henley
William Ernest Henley was an English
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

A poet is a person who writes poetry. A poet's work can be literal, meaning that his work is derived from a specific event, or metaphorical, meaning that his work can take on many meanings and forms. Poets have existed since antiquity, in nearly all languages, and have produced works that vary...

, critic
A critic is anyone who expresses a value judgement. Informally, criticism is a common aspect of all human expression and need not necessarily imply skilled or accurate expressions of judgement. Critical judgements, good or bad, may be positive , negative , or balanced...

 and editor
Editing is the process of selecting and preparing written, visual, audible, and film media used to convey information through the processes of correction, condensation, organization, and other modifications performed with an intention of producing a correct, consistent, accurate, and complete...

, best remembered for his 1875 poem "Invictus
"Invictus" is a short Victorian poem by the English poet William Ernest Henley .- Background :At the age of 12, Henley contracted tuberculosis of the bone. A few years later, the disease progressed to his foot, and physicians announced that the only way to save his life was to amputate directly...


Life and career

Henley was born in Gloucester
Gloucester is a city, district and county town of Gloucestershire in the South West region of England. Gloucester lies close to the Welsh border, and on the River Severn, approximately north-east of Bristol, and south-southwest of Birmingham....

 and was the eldest of a family of six children, five sons and a daughter. His father, William, was a bookseller and stationer who died in 1868 and was survived by his 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
The Crypt School, Gloucester
The Crypt School is a grammar school for boys with a mixed Sixth Form, located in the city of Gloucester, England, founded in 1539 by Joan Cooke with money inherited from her husband John....

 (founded 1539).

A Commission had attempted recently to revive the school by securing the brilliant and academically distinguished T. E. Brown
Thomas Edward Brown
Thomas Edward Brown , commonly referred to as T.E. Brown was a Manx poet, scholar and theologian.Brown was born at Douglas, Isle of Man. His father, the Rev. Robert Brown, shared with the parish schoolmaster in tutoring the clever boy until, at the age of fifteen, he was entered at King William's...

 (1830–1897) as headmaster. Brown's appointment was relatively brief (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 an admiring obituary 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".

From the age of 12 Henley suffered from tuberculosis
Tuberculosis, MTB, or TB is a common, and in many cases lethal, infectious disease caused by various strains of mycobacteria, usually Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Tuberculosis usually attacks the lungs but can also affect other parts of the body...

 of the bone which resulted in the amputation of his left leg below the knee during either 1865 or 1868-69. According to Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson was a Scottish novelist, poet, essayist and travel writer. His best-known books include Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde....

's letters, the idea for the character of Long John Silver
Long John Silver
Long John Silver is a fictional character and the primary antagonist of the novel Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson. Silver is also known by the nicknames "Barbecue" and the "Sea-Cook".- Profile :...

 was inspired by his real-life friend Henley. Stevenson's stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, described Henley as "..a great, glowing, massive-shouldered fellow with a big red beard and a crutch; jovial, astoundingly clever, and with a laugh that rolled like music; he had an unimaginable fire and vitality; he swept one off one's feet". In a letter to Henley after the publication of Treasure Island Stevenson wrote "I will now make a confession. It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver...the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you".

Frequent illness often kept him from school, although the misfortunes of his father's business may also have contributed. During 1867, Henley passed the Oxford Local Schools Examination and soon afterwards moved to London where he attempted to establish himself as a journalist. However, his work over the next eight years was interrupted by long periods in hospital because his right foot was also diseased. Henley contested the diagnosis that a second amputation was the only way to save his life by becoming a patient of the pioneering surgeon Joseph Lister
Joseph Lister, 1st Baron Lister
Joseph Lister, 1st Baron Lister OM, FRS, PC , known as Sir Joseph Lister, Bt., between 1883 and 1897, was a British surgeon and a pioneer of antiseptic surgery, who promoted the idea of sterile surgery while working at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary...

 (1827–1912) at The Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. After three years in hospital (1873–75), during which he wrote and published the poems collected as In Hospital, Henley was discharged. Lister's treatment had not effected a complete cure but enabled Henley to have a relatively active life for nearly 30 years.

On 22 January 1878 he married Hannah (Anna) Johnson Boyle (1855–1925), the youngest daughter of Edward Boyle, a mechanical engineer from Edinburgh and his wife, Mary Ann née Mackie.

His literary acquaintances also resulted in his sickly young daughter, Margaret Henley
Margaret Henley
Margaret Emma Henley was the daughter of William Ernest Henley and his wife Anna Henley . Margaret's friendship with J. M...

 (born 4 September 1888), being immortalised by J. M. Barrie
J. M. Barrie
Sir James Matthew Barrie, 1st Baronet, OM was a Scottish author and dramatist, best remembered today as the creator of Peter Pan. The child of a family of small-town weavers, he was educated in Scotland. He moved to London, where he developed a career as a novelist and playwright...

 in his children's classic Peter Pan
Peter and Wendy
Peter and Wendy, published in 1911, is the novelisation by J. M. Barrie of his most famous play Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up...

. Unable to speak clearly, the young Margaret referred to her friend Barrie as her "fwendy-wendy", resulting in the use of the name Wendy, which was coined for the book. Margaret never read the book; she died on 11 February 1894 at the age of 5 and was buried at the country estate of her father's friend, Harry Cockayne Cust
Henry Cust
Henry John "Harry" Cockayne-Cust was an English politician and editor who served as a Member of Parliament for the Unionist Party.-Biography:...

, in Cockayne Hatley
Cockayne Hatley
Cockayne Hatley is a small village in Bedfordshire dating back to Saxon times , bordering on Cambridgeshire, 3 miles east of Potton, 6 miles north-east from Biggleswade and 9 miles south-east from St. Neots. The village's population in 1891 was 104.The soil is strong clay with clay subsoil...

, Bedfordshire.

After his recovery, Henley earned a living in publishing. During 1889 he became editor of the Scots Observer, an Edinburgh journal similar to the old Saturday Review. It was transferred to London during 1891 as the National Observer
National Observer (UK)
The National Observer was a British newspaper published from 1888-1897.The publication began as the Scots Observer, until its location was moved from Edinburgh to London in 1889, after which it was renamed the National Observer. The paper was considered conservative in its political outlook. One of...

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 confined mainly to the literary class, it was a lively and influential feature of the literary life of its time. Henley had an editor's gift of discerning talent, and the "Men of the Scots Observer", as Henley affectionately and characteristically termed his band of contributors, in most instances justified his insight. Charles Whibley
Charles Whibley
Charles Whibley was an English literary journalist and author. Whibley’s style was described by Matthew as “often acerbic high-tory commentary”.-Life:...

 was friends with Henley and assisted Henley edit the Scots Observer and also the National Observer. The journal's outlook was conservative and was often sympathetic to the growing imperialism of its time, and among other services to literature it published Rudyard Kipling
Rudyard Kipling
Joseph Rudyard Kipling was an English poet, short-story writer, and novelist chiefly remembered for his celebration of British imperialism, tales and poems of British soldiers in India, and his tales for children. Kipling received the 1907 Nobel Prize for Literature...

's Barrack-Room Ballads
Barrack-Room Ballads
The Barrack-Room Ballads, and Other Verses are a set of martial songs and poems by Rudyard Kipling originally published in two parts: the first set in 1892, the second in 1896...


Henley died in 1903 at the age of 53 at his home in Woking and his ashes interred in his daughter's grave in the churchyard at Cockayne Hatley in Bedfordshire.


Arguably his best-remembered work is the poem "Invictus
"Invictus" is a short Victorian poem by the English poet William Ernest Henley .- Background :At the age of 12, Henley contracted tuberculosis of the bone. A few years later, the disease progressed to his foot, and physicians announced that the only way to save his life was to amputate directly...

", 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. This passionate and defiant poem should be compared with his beautiful and contemplative acceptance of death and dying in the poem "Margaritae Sorori". The poems of In Hospital are also noteworthy as some of the earliest free verse
Free verse
Free verse is a form of poetry that refrains from consistent meter patterns, rhyme, or any other musical pattern.Poets have explained that free verse, despite its freedom, is not free. Free Verse displays some elements of form...

 written in England. With J.S. Farmer Henley edited a seven volume dictionary of Slang and its analogues which inspired his two translations into thieves' slang of ballades by Francois Villon
Villon may refer to:* 10140 Villon, a main belt asteroid* Villon, Yonne, Burgundy, France* Villon , a French surname* François Villon, the 15th-century poet...


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
Heinrich Heine
Christian Johann Heinrich Heine was one of the most significant German poets of the 19th century. He was also a journalist, essayist, and literary critic. He is best known outside Germany for his early lyric poetry, which was set to music in the form of Lieder by composers such as Robert Schumann...

 and Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy
Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy was a Russian writer who primarily wrote novels and short stories. Later in life, he also wrote plays and essays. His two most famous works, the novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina, are acknowledged as two of the greatest novels of all time and a pinnacle of realist...

) were remarkable for their insight. During 1892, he published a second volume of poetry, named after the first poem, "The Song of the Sword" but re-titled "London Voluntaries" after another section in the second edition (1893). Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that he had not received the same thrill of poetry so intimate and so deep since George Meredith
George Meredith
George Meredith, OM was an English novelist and poet of the Victorian era.- Life :Meredith was born in Portsmouth, England, a son and grandson of naval outfitters. His mother died when he was five. At the age of 14 he was sent to a Moravian School in Neuwied, Germany, where he remained for two...

'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
Apollo is one of the most important and complex of the Olympian deities in Greek and Roman mythology...

. These are not verse; they are poetry". During 1892, Henley also published three plays written with Stevenson — Beau Austin, Deacon Brodie and Admiral Guinea. During 1895, Henley's poem, "Macaire
The name "Macaire" was first documented as an Irish Saint in the Bible. It appears to have several claims of origin. It was a male name and currently is considered a male or female name...

", was published in a volume with the other plays. Deacon Brodie was produced in Edinburgh in 1884 and later in London. Herbert Beerbohm Tree
Herbert Beerbohm Tree
Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree was an English actor and theatre manager.Tree began performing in the 1870s. By 1887, he was managing the Haymarket Theatre, winning praise for adventurous programming and lavish productions, and starring in many of its productions. In 1899, he helped fund the...

 produced Beau Austin at the Haymarket on 3 November 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
Jingoism is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as extreme patriotism in the form of aggressive foreign policy. In practice, it is a country's advocation of the use of threats or actual force against other countries in order to safeguard what it perceives as its national interests...

 they feel it expresses or the propagandistic
Propaganda is a form of communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position so as to benefit oneself or one's group....

 use it is put to. "England, My England
England, My England and Other Stories
England, My England is the title of a collection of short stories by D. H. Lawrence. Individual items were originally written between 1913 and 1921, many of them against the background of World War I. Most of these versions were placed in magazines or periodicals. Ten were later selected and...

", a short story by D. H. Lawrence
D. H. Lawrence
David Herbert Richards Lawrence was an English novelist, poet, playwright, essayist, literary critic and painter who published as D. H. Lawrence. His collected works represent an extended reflection upon the dehumanising effects of modernity and industrialisation...

 and also England, Their England
England, Their England
England, Their England is an affectionately satirical comic novel of 1920s English urban and rural society by the Scottish writer A. G. Macdonell. It is particularly famed for its portrayal of village cricket.-Social satire:...

the novel by A. G. Macdonell
A. G. Macdonell
Archibald Gordon Macdonell was a Scottish writer, journalist and broadcaster, whose most famous work is the gently satirical novel England, Their England .-Life and work:...

 both use the phrase.

While incarcerated on Robben Island
Robben Island
Robben Island is an island in Table Bay, 6.9 km west of the coast of Bloubergstrand, Cape Town, South Africa. The name is Dutch for "seal island". Robben Island is roughly oval in shape, 3.3 km long north-south, and 1.9 km wide, with an area of 5.07 km². It is flat and only a...

 prison, Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999, and was the first South African president to be elected in a fully representative democratic election. Before his presidency, Mandela was an anti-apartheid activist, and the leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing...

 recited the poem "Invictus
"Invictus" is a short Victorian poem by the English poet William Ernest Henley .- Background :At the age of 12, Henley contracted tuberculosis of the bone. A few years later, the disease progressed to his foot, and physicians announced that the only way to save his life was to amputate directly...

" to other prisoners and was empowered by its message of self mastery. In the 2009 movie Invictus
Invictus (film)
Invictus is a 2009 biographical sports drama film directed by Clint Eastwood starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.The story is based on the John Carlin book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation about the events in South Africa before and during the 1995 Rugby World...

, produced and directed by Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood
Clinton "Clint" Eastwood, Jr. is an American film actor, director, producer, composer and politician. Eastwood first came to prominence as a supporting cast member in the TV series Rawhide...

, the poem is referenced several times. It becomes the central inspirational gift from Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman
Morgan Freeman
Morgan Freeman is an American actor, film director, aviator and narrator. He is noted for his reserved demeanor and authoritative speaking voice. Freeman has received Academy Award nominations for his performances in Street Smart, Driving Miss Daisy, The Shawshank Redemption and Invictus and won...

, to Springbok
South Africa national rugby union team
The South African national rugby union team are 2009 British and Irish Lions Series winners. They are currently ranked as the fourth best team in the IRB World Rankings and were named 2008 World Team of the Year at the prestigious Laureus World Sports Awards.Although South Africa was instrumental...

Rugby football
Rugby football is a style of football named after Rugby School in the United Kingdom. It is seen most prominently in two current sports, rugby league and rugby union.-History:...

 team captain François Pienaar
Francois Pienaar
Jacobus Francois Pienaar is a South African former rugby union player. He played flanker for South Africa from 1993 until 1996, winning 29 international caps, all of them as captain. He is best known for leading South Africa to victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup...

, played by Matt Damon
Matt Damon
Matthew Paige "Matt" Damon is an American actor, screenwriter, and philanthropist whose career was launched following the success of the film Good Will Hunting , from a screenplay he co-wrote with friend Ben Affleck...

, in advance of the post-apartheid Rugby World Cup hosted in 1995 by South Africa
South Africa
The Republic of South Africa is a country in southern Africa. Located at the southern tip of Africa, it is divided into nine provinces, with of coastline on the Atlantic and Indian oceans...

 and won by the underdog Springboks.

The famous Finnish female writer Hella Wuolijoki
Hella Wuolijoki
Hella Wuolijoki was a Finnish writer of Estonian origin, known for her Niskavuori series.-Life & career:Wuolijoki was born in Helme, Estonia....

has mentioned in her memoirs Enkä ollut vanki that the poem "Invictus" also inspired and encouraged her during her incarceration in Katajanokka/Skatudden prison in Helsinki at the end of World War II.

External links

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