The Poetry of Henley Essay - Critical Essays

William Ernest Henley

Critical Evaluation

The poetry of W. E. Henley reveals a man of various postures, of fundamentally slight mental accomplishments, but of great variety in subject matter and verse forms.

His poem sequence “In Hospital” sets the pattern for most of his subsequent work. Presenting a rather new idea for a series of poems, he attempts the unhackneyed in his treatment. The volume chronicles his hospital experience from his moment of entry to his exit, and he gives brief sketches of most of the other people in the hospital at that time. He begins with “Enter Patient,” continues with “Waiting” for the operation, then the “Operation” itself, and with his other experiences until he is “Discharged.” He also sketches the nurses, the surgeons, and various other people confined as patients. These poems are essentially topical, but in some instances his language is realistic and powerful enough to convey his themes with vividness. The probe used on him while he is waiting for the operation feels like a crowbar, and life he believes is a blunder. The nurses almost come alive, and “Kate the scrubber” is magnificently portrayed in her macabre ballet performance before the patients.

“The Song of the Sword,” which was dedicated to and strongly influenced by Rudyard Kipling is a half-successful effort to imitate heroic poetry in having the author speak in the person of the sword. The sword is the long and righteous arm of England. Today this note of imperialism, powered by Kipling’s philosophy, has an offensive ring.

“Arabian Nights’ Entertainments” is an effort to re-create the wonder of childhood dreams in the make-believe world of Sindbad, Scheherazade, Pan, wizened leprechauns, and dozens of other such characters. Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” held an especial attraction to the author in his memories that were thirty-five years “deep.” But the poem is not a success. It gushes and names, trying to recall a lost magic; it does not evoke and re-create in the real sense. The magical words are given but the spirits of the words are not reawakened.

“Bric-A-Brac,” written between 1877 and 1888, continues to a certain extent Henley’s experimentation in form and subject matter. Most of the works are entitled the “Ballade” of one thing or another, as “Ballade of Youth and Age,” and end with an “Envoy,” but these efforts at archaism are generally unsuccessful. Far more noteworthy are such efforts at realism as “In Fisherrow.” The sentiment in the poem is embarrassing rather than poignant, but the realistic picture of the ugly old woman selling fish is vividly presented. Fifty years old, she has a bronzed and shriveled face and neck; her feet are large, her legs bowed and spare and strong; and as she walks along imploring would-be purchasers to buy her fish she has the “spirit of traffic” ever in her eye.

Another poem in the volume that reveals one unfortunate aspect of Henley is “We shall surely die.” Crippled as he was, Henley often postured a bravado that attempted to...

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