William Ernest Henley Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The poet, critic, and dramatist William Ernest Henley was the oldest of five boys, several of whom also became artists. He was fortunate to have as his teacher at the Crypt grammar school at Gloucester the poet Thomas Edward Brown, whose presence, Henley said, was “like a call from the world outside, the great, quick, living world” that suggested “such possibilities in life and character as I had never dreamed.”

Henley suffered early from tuberculosis, and in his twelfth year one foot was amputated as a result of his disease; his doctors thought the removal of the other leg necessary to save his life, but in an effort to retain this leg he went to Edinburgh in 1873 to Professor Joseph Lister’s infirmary, where his leg was saved. His experience in the infirmary is realistically presented in the “In Hospital” series of poems.

While in the infirmary, he met and became friends with Robert Louis Stevenson, who was Henley’s counterpart in temperament and personality. Their intimacy cooled, however, in later years. In 1877-1878, Henley settled in London and became editor of the weekly paper London. Later, he wrote critical material for such publications as Athenaeum, St. James Gazette, Saturday Review, and Vanity Fair. He was editor of Magazine of Art from 1882 to 1886, and in 1889 he became editor of the weekly Scots Observer, which moved to London in 1891, when the name...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Buckley, Jerome Henley. William Ernest Henley: A Study in the “Counter-Decadence” of the ’Nineties. 1945. Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1971. A literary analysis.

Chandran, K. Narayana. “T. S. Eliot’s Recall of W. E. Henley: East Coker III and ‘Ballade of Dead Actors.’” Notes and Queries 47 (September, 2000). Calls attention to Eliot’s echo of Henley in a passage in which scholars usually focus on his reference to John Milton.

Cornford, L. Cope. William Ernest Henley. 1913. Reprint. New York: Haskell House, 1972. An early but important biography.

Flora, Joseph M. William Ernest Henley. New York: Twayne, 1970. A good introductory study.

McCormick, Anita Hemphill. “Ancestral Voices Prophesying War: Manliness in Decline in Henley’s Lyra Heroica.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 13, no. 2 (1989). A close reading.

Nelson, Walter W. The Creative 1890’s: Essays on W. E. Henley, Arthur Symons, Oscar Wilde, and William Butler Yeats. Lund, Sweden: W. W. Nelson, 1998. The essay on Henley considers him in the context of his contemporaries.

Salemi, Joseph S. “The Personification of Death in the Poems of William Ernest Henley.” Victorian Newsletter 83 (Spring, 1993). Analyzes metaphors in Henley’s work.

Williamson, Kennedy. W. E. Henley: A Memoir. 1930. Reprint. New York: Haskell House, 1974. Personal recollections.