William Ernest Henley: Poet, playwright & polymath

Portrait of William Ernest Henley (author unknown / source ‘The Story of the House of Cassell’)

Portrait of William Ernest Henley (author unknown / source ‘The Story of the House of Cassell’) - Credit: Archant

Gloucester-born William Ernest Henley was, amongst his many other attributes, the man who inspired the character of Long John Silver

The Crypt Grammar School’s original location next to St Mary de Crypt church. Henley attended the sc

The Crypt Grammar School’s original location next to St Mary de Crypt church. Henley attended the school here (‘Philafrenzy’) - Credit: Archant

I like the word 'polymath'. If you're one of these you're learned, a person with a broad expanse of knowledge, and you're probably good at lots of 'stuff'. William Ernest Henley was a polymath. A poet and playwright, critic and editor, Henley had strings to his bow. He was also an inspiring man of great courage.

William Henley was born at 47, Eastgate Street, in Gloucester, 170 years ago in August (August 23, 1849), to William Henley Snr, a struggling middle-class bookseller, who died when his son was a teen, and Mary Morgan. Henley was educated firstly at Suffolk House (1854) then at the Crypt Grammar School in the city (1861) where the Manx-born poet, TE Brown was Headmaster. Reputedly the school was the Cathedral School's poor relation, something Henley alluded to later in life in his writing. However, getting to know Brown was a gift, for he was the first of the literati that Henley knew. Brown was also kind to the ailing Henley, whose schooling was frequently interrupted by TB of the left leg, lending him books. When Henley left in 1867, he headed for London and it is believed that he might have had his leg amputated just below the knee the following year at St Bart's.

Henley had been diagnosed with tubercular arthritis aged just 12, which later led to him spending 20 months in Edinburgh Infirmary (1873-75). His other leg was saved by the pioneering antiseptic surgeon Joseph Lister at this time. It may not have been just his leg that was preserved. Whilst recuperating, Henley wrote A Book of Verses (published later in 1888), which gained him the friendship of Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94), another writer who suffered from consumptive ailments. The pair were introduced by Leslie Stephen (writer, critic and father-to-be of Virginia Woolf) on February 12, 1875. The meeting of Henley and Stevenson, and their earnest friendship, born from mutual suffering, is one of the great set-pieces of our nation's literary story. Henley became a close friend of Stevenson, who based the character of peg-legged villain Long John Silver on him. As far as I can establish Henley never owned a parrot.

The two men collaborated on three plays, namely Deacon Brodie, Beau Austin and Admiral Guinea.

Long John Silver from a 1911 edition of Treasure Island (author NC Wyeth, permission PD-OLD-60-1923)

Long John Silver from a 1911 edition of Treasure Island (author NC Wyeth, permission PD-OLD-60-1923) - Credit: Archant

Henley's composition of Invictus (1875) dated to this time (and his poetry would often reflect his determination not to let tragedy define him). As writers we're often told to write about what we know (life's experiences) and a lot of Henley's early poetry was about hospital life: it was a candour and realism that would help make his reputation. Henley wrote for Encyclopaedia Britannica while he was in Edinburgh, that is until he was sacked because of an article he contributed on Christopher Columbus (Henley said this was for 'incompetence').

Henley was also married, to Hannah Johnson Boyle (1855-1925), in 1878. She was known as Anna. The pair had met a few years earlier, in 1874, when Henley was in the infirmary in Edinburgh. Hannah's brother had been a fellow patient. The following year Henley would pay a visit to Dieppe and, tragically, Anna would have a stillborn child. She'd also suffer a miscarriage in 1881. The tragic element of William's life certainly didn't end with an amputation.

Whilst other victims of life's body-blows might have wallowed in self-pity, Henley looked for fresh challenges and interests. He wasn't just interested in writing. Art rocked his boat too, and in that same year (1881), he became friends with Auguste Rodin.

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In 1884, Henley visited Stevenson at Hyères, in Mediterranean France. The search was on for places whose climate would aid the two men's conditions. The late-1880s would see Stevenson in Bournemouth for this very reason and Henley visited him there several times, including in 1884 and 1887. Mr and Mrs Henley paid Paris a visit in 1886 and it was at this time that William sat for Rodin's bust of him.

Joseph Lister, the pioneering antiseptic surgeon, who saved Henley’s other leg and quite possibly hi

Joseph Lister, the pioneering antiseptic surgeon, who saved Henley’s other leg and quite possibly his life (author unknown, source Weltrundschau zu Reclams Universum) - Credit: Archant

Henley was more a poet than playwright and his only solo play, Mephisto, was put on in 1887 but bombed. It was probably as well that Henley adopted a dramatist's pseudonym in the circumstances (Byron McGuiness). The lead role was played by William's younger brother, Edward (1860-98), who was a talented actor.

All was not doom and gloom, however, for it was around about this time that Henley was attracting rave reviews for his poetry, as Gleeson White had started publishing selections of poetry, some of the pieces being William's. This would lead to Henley's A Book of Verses finally being published in 1888.

In 1888 Henley accused Stephenson's wife, Fanny, of plagiarism, which led to a quarrel, and estrangement. Fanny, also a writer, had published something in her name, which Henley claimed had previously been someone else's. He could be forthright, both in his literary criticism, and in his relations, it seemed.

William Henley moved about quite a lot, principally between London and Scotland, but in 1892 he was pretty much 'Dunroamin' when he settled in Surrey.

Religious dedication from a Roman legionary, which has ‘deo invicto’ on the top line, i.e. ‘God unbe

Religious dedication from a Roman legionary, which has ‘deo invicto’ on the top line, i.e. ‘God unbeaten’ (picture taken in the Roman History Museum, Osterburken by ‘DerHexer’) - Credit: Archant

More volumes of Henley's verse followed, which were characterised by unusual rhymes and the use of esoteric words (these are the ones writers normally avoid because they're only understood by a limited few). There was The Song of the Sword (1892), London Voluntaries (1893), Collected Poems (1898), Hawthorn and Lavender (1899), For England's Sake (1900), Hawthorn and Lavender (1901) and A Song of Speed (1903). Shortly before that last one was published Henley had a brush with danger when he was "severely shaken while attempting to board a train" (March 1902). Mind the gap.

Henley's poetry included Invictus ("Under the bludgeonings of fate, my head is bloody and unbowed… I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul"), after which the film Invictus (2009), and the Invictus Games (first held 2014), were named. That spirit of triumphing over adversity comes through loud and clear and applies equally whether we're talking about a young poet recovering from a lost limb, or a serviceman reconciling to life-changing injuries. It's about inner-strength and perseverance, in spite of everything life chucks at you.

Invictus goes right back by the way. The Latin means unconquered or invincible and the Romans applied it to their Gods, who were regarded in this way, as omnipotent beings, having unlimited power. Henley meanwhile bestowed that oft-used phase "bloody and unbowed" on us.

Henley's criticism has been described as 'pungent' (sharp and caustic), so he was probably a good read. He was known as a 'benevolent bully', which sounds contradictory, yet wasn't. He was generous to those who had latent talent, who he felt needed encouraging and promoting, but could be harsh to those who he felt did not merit their esteemed reputations. In that sense he sounds like a believer in a meritocracy and a proficient talent spotter.

He was a successful editor of the Magazine of Art, praising the likes of Rodin and James Whistler, and the Scots Observer (which became the National Observer when it transferred to London) and also compiled a dictionary of slang (Cor blimey). Through his journals he introduced the early work of many of those who'd go on to become the great writers of the late-19th century. Henley could be witty. He once described the National Observer as having almost as many writers as readers.

Henley 's daughter, Margaret Emma, provided inspiration for another great literary character, Wendy in Peter Pan. Henley was a great one for giving back and he acted as a mentor to many aspiring writers, including J.M. Barrie (1860-1937). Henley became particularly close to Barrie, who he called 'my friend'. Little Margaret thought this was his friend's name and corrupted it to 'Fwendy', which led to Barrie calling his heroine 'Wendy'. Sadly, the little girl died when she was just five from meningitis, so never even lived long enough to read Barrie's book.

Henley died on July 11, 1903, aged 53, of TB. He died in Woking, was cremated there, and lies buried in the churchyard of St John's, Cockayne Hatley, Bedfordshire. It's a simple, grey tomb reposing beneath an ash tree. He was considered sufficiently worthy to have at least three biographies penned about him.


10 William Henley facts

- Henley's mother was a descendant of the poet Joseph Warton (1722-1800).

- He had 4 brothers and a sister, including Edward (1860-98), a talented actor.

- Another brother, Anthony, became a landscape painter.

- Henley's illness prevented him going to Oxford, although he passed the entrance exam.

- Henley was a linguist, mastering French, Spanish and German.

- He was an accomplished editor who edited four different magazines during his career.

- As an editor, Henley published works by H.G. Wells & Thomas Hardy, among others.

- The followers of William Henley were known as the 'Henley Regatta'.

- Nelson Mandela recited the words of 'Invictus' to fellow-prisoners on Robben Island.

- H.G. Wells dedicated his famous sci-fi novel, 'The Time Machine', to Henley.


- Chambers Biographical Dictionary (1974)

- I never knew that about England (C Winn, 2005)

- The Selected Letters of WE Henley (D Atkinson, 2000)

- Poetry Foundation

- Britannica

- Poem Hunter

- Science Museum

- Victorian Era

- Interesting Literature