Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Henley, William Ernest
HENLEY, WILLIAM ERNEST (1849–1903), poet, critic, and dramatist, born at Gloucester on 23 Aug. 1849, was eldest of five children, all sons, of William Henley, a bookseller in Gloucester, by his wife Emma Morgan. His father came of an old yeoman stock and his mother was descended from Joseph Warton, the critic [q. v.]. Of his brothers, Edward John was a well-known London actor, and later toured in America, where he died in 1898; and Anthony Warton is a landscape painter. William Ernest was educated at the Crypt grammar school, Gloucester, of which, in 1861, Thomas Edward Brown [q. v. Suppl. I], the poet, became head master. That he had Brown for a teacher, Henley was accustomed to deem a rare piece of good fortune. His presence, he says, was 'like a call from the world outside, the great, quick, living world. . . . What he did for me, practically, was to suggest such possibilities in life and character as I had never dreamed ' (Works, iv. 207-8). Brown's influence was all the greater in that Henley was partly severed from ' the great, quick, living world,' during the late period of his youth and his early manhood, by a tuberculous disease which from his twelfth year made him a cripple and long threatened his life. His consolation was reading and study, and in 1867 he passed the Oxford local examination as a senior candidate. The progress of the disease soon necessitated the amputation of one foot, and having been told by the doctors that his life could be saved only by the amputation of the other leg he, in 1873, went to Edinburgh to place himself under the care of Prof. Joseph (afterwards Lord) Lister in the infirmary. There he was a patient for twenty months. By Lister's skilful attention the leg was saved, and although his health always remained precarious, he was able, with occasional intervals of severe illness, to apply himself to literary labour until the close of his life. The character of his nights and days in the infirmary is vividly disclosed in the 'Hospital Verses,' a portion of which appeared in the 'Cornhill Magazine ' for July 1876. His mood of mind is depicted in 'Out of the night that covers me.'
Some verses previously sent from the infirmary to the 'Cornhill Magazine' led the editor (Sir) Leslie Stephen, when in Edinburgh in 1875, to visit him on his sick-bed and to introduce him to R. L. Stevenson, who describes him as sitting 'up in his bed with his hair all tangled,' and talking ' as cheerfully as if he had been in a king's palace ' (letter of Stevenson, 13 Feb. 1875). Henley portrayed Stevenson to the life in the hospital sonnet 'Apparition.' Henceforth their relations became intimate. Their temperaments had strong affinities; both were unconventional; both were devoted to the art of literature, and their sympathy, as Stevenson states, was 'nourished by mutual assistance.' 'As I look back in memory,' he wrote in his dedication to Henley of 'Virginibus Puerisque' (1881), 'there is hardly a stage of that distance but I see you present with advice, reproof or praise.' Subsequently their personal relations grew less intimate owing to a private disagreement, and on the appearance of Stevenson's biography by Mr. Graham Balfour in 1901, Henley contributed to the 'Pall Mall Magazine ' (Dec. 1901) a disparaging article called 'R. L. S.' Yet in an essay on Hazlitt (1902, Works, ii. 158) he referred to Stevenson as an artist in letters, 'who lived to conquer the English-speaking world.'
On leaving the infirmary in 1875, Henley remained in Edinburgh for a few months to work on the staff of the 'Encyclopaedia Britannica.' His contributions, mainly in French biography, included Chenier and Chastelard; but he felt hampered by the conditions of the work. Already he had begun to contribute to the London journals, and in 1877-8 he settled in London to become editor of a weekly paper, 'London,' founded by George Glasgow Brown, a friend of Stevenson and himself, in which appeared many of his early poems, several of the essays included in 'Views and Reviews,' and Stevenson's unique 'New Arabian Nights.' On the discontinuance of the paper he did critical work for the 'Athenæum,' the 'St. James's Gazette,' the 'Saturday Review,' and 'Vanity Fair.' From 1882 to 1886 he was editor of the 'Magazine of Art,' where he made known to England the sculptural genius of Rodin, championed the pictorial art of Whistler, and found for Robert Alan Mowbray Stevenson [q. v. Suppl. I] opportunity to begin his work as art critic. In 1889 he returned to Edinburgh to become editor of a weekly paper, the 'Scots Observer,' the headquarters of which were in 1891 removed to London, the title having been changed to the 'National Observer.' Patriotic imperialism, or anti-Gladstonianism, was the dominating note of the paper's politics; but Henley's main purpose was the promotion of what he deemed the higher interests of literature and art. While iconoclasm, sometimes extreme and one-sided, was a conspicuous feature of its criticism, its appreciation of excellence only partially recognised or not recognised at all was as common as its disparagement of what was supposed to have obtained an undeserved repute. Its 'middles' included contributions from several writers who had won fame, and from more who were on the way to win it. Among the many contributors were J. M. Barrie, T. E. Brown, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Andrew Lang, Arthur Morrison, (Sir) Gilbert Parker, G. S. Street, G. W. Steevens, R. L. Stevenson, H. G. Wells, and W. B. Yeats. Exacting as an editor, Henley was yet a benevolent autocrat, and stimulated his contributors by his strong literary enthusiasm and blend of friendly correction with generous praise. After retiring from the editorship of the 'National Observer' in 1894 he was until 1898 editor of a monthly magazine, the 'New Review,' which, notwithstanding notable contributions in fiction and essays, was a financial failure. From 1899 till his death he contributed occasionally a literary article to the 'Pall Mall Magazine.'
Meanwhile, he had, in 1888, obtained reputation as a poet, though more instantly and widely in America than in England, by a 'Book of Verses,' which embraced the whole graphic hospital series, of which the more poignant, in the unrhymed form, had been refused admission to the 'Cornhill Magazine'; the 'Bric-a-Brac Poems,' some in the sonnet form and the majority in the modish forms of old French verse, but often wrought with such deft command of phrase, and so alive with poetic fancy, or emotion, that all sense of artificiality disappears; and various other verses entitled 'Echoes,' the majority of which accord with his own definition of a lyric, 'a single emotion temperamentally expressed in terms of poetry' (Preface to English Lyrics, p. 1). In 1892 he published the 'Song of the Sword and other Verses,' including the 'London Voluntaries'; and in 1893 a second edition, with additions, appeared under the title ' London Voluntaries and other Verses.' In the 'Voluntaries,' 'a rich and lovely verbal magic,' wrote Francis Thompson, 'is mated with metre that comes and goes like the heaving of the Muse's bosom' (Academy, 18 July 1903). The technical accomplishment attains here its most difficult triumphs. In 1898 the two collections of verse were reprinted in a definitive edition, with omissions, additions and changes under the title 'Poems,' with a photograviure of the author's bust by Rodin. A series of drawings of London types by William Nicholson with picturesque quatorzains by Henley appeared in the same year; and in 1900 he published a small volume of verse entitled 'For England's sake: Verses and Songs in Time of War,' voicing his patriotic fervour during the Boer struggle. The two most notable poems are 'Pro Rege Nostro,' which has been set to music as a song by Miss Frances Allitsen, and for choral purposes by Mr. Ernest Dicks, and 'Last Post,' set to music for chorus and orchestra by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. The lyric sequence, 'Hawthorn and Lavender' (1901, first printed in the 'North American Review'), a kind of parable of the spring, summer, autumn, and winter of manhood, contains a more intimate revelation of himself than the earlier poems. This volume also includes among other pieces the 'Threnody for Queen Victoria' which, first appearing in the 'Morning Post,' was printed for private circulation as a broadside. 'Hawthorn and Lavender' he intended to be his last poetic utterance; but his first experience of the delights of motoring inspired him to write 'A Song of Speed,' which appeared in the 'World's Work' in April 1903, and shortly afterwards was published separately, Henley's verse was the occasional recreation of a life mainly occupied with editing and the criticism of literature and art. In 1890 he published 'Views and Reviews,' described by himself as 'a mosaic of scraps and shreds from the shot rubbish of some fourteen years of journalism,' and consisting mainly of vignette impressions of the great English and French writers. A companion volume on art appeared in 1902, selected from the memorial catalogue (1887) of the loan collection of French and Dutch pictures in the Edinburgh International Exhibition (1886), from the 'Century of Artists' (1889), prepared as a memorial of the art portion of the Glasgow Exhibition of 1888, and from the catalogue (1889) of the loan collection of pictures of the great French and Dutch romanticists of the nineteenth century, prepared for the art publishers, Messrs. Dowdeswell. For the last catalogue he wrote an elaborate note on 'Romanticism.' The volume also includes a study of Sir Henry Raeburn, which prefaced a sumptuous book, published in 1890, by the Association for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Scotland, as well as a study of two modern artists (Charles Keene and Rodin) contributed to the 'National Observer' in 1890; and a tribute to R. A. M. Stevenson from the 'Pall Mall Magazine' in July 1900.
'As critic,' wrote Meredith of Henley, 'he had the rare combination of enthusiasm and wakeful judgment. Pretentiousness felt his whip smartly, the accepted imbecile had to bear the weight of his epigrams. But merit under a cloud, or just emerging, he sparkled on or lifted to the public view. He was one of the main supports of good literature in our time' (The Henley Memorial, p. 7). Impressionist and emotional, Henley's criticism represents artistic sensibilities that are exceptionally keen. In painting he proposed to ignore any qualities except those strictly pictorial, and sculpture he pronounced to be ‘wholly a matter of form, surface and line.’ His literary sympathies were restricted by peculiarities of temperament, but realist and humorist as well as poet, he was an expert critic of those forms of literature that deal primarily with concrete human nature. His prose style, elaborately polished and occasionally mannered, is notable for elasticity, and vivid appositeness of phrase.
Henley collaborated with R. L. Stevenson in four plays, ‘Deacon Brodie’ (privately printed in 1880, and in a finished version in 1888), ‘Beau Austin’ and ‘Admiral Guinea’ (both printed in 1884), and ‘Macaire’ (in 1885). A collected edition of the first three plays was published in 1892, and ‘Macaire’ was added in 1894. ‘Deacon Brodie’ was produced at Pullan's Theatre of Varieties, Bradford, on 28 Dec. 1882, and was performed at the Prince's Theatre, London, on 2 July 1884, and in the same year at Edinburgh. With the finished version, which has not been performed in this country, Henley's brother, Edward John, made a successful tour in America in 1888. ‘Beau Austin’ was produced by Mr. (now Sir) Beerbohm Tree at the Haymarket Theatre, London, on 3 Nov. 1890. ‘Admiral Guinea,’ first produced on 29 Nov. 1897, was revived at the Royalty Theatre, Glasgow (the Repertory Theatre) on 19 April 1909 and at His Majesty's Theatre, London, on 4 June of the same year. ‘Macaire’ was played twice by the Stage Society, London (on 4 Nov. 1900 at the Strand Theatre, and on 8 Nov. at the Great Queen Street Theatre). ‘Beau Austin’ and ‘Macaire’ were performed at a matinee in Her Majesty's Theatre on 3 May 1901 on behalf of the Prince of Wales's Hospital Fund, all the parts being filled by leading actors and actresses. ‘Deacon Brodie’ is dramatically the most effective of the four pieces, none of which attained popular success, though all helped to promote a higher ideal of playwriting in Great Britain.
Henley was also the author of ‘A new and original travestie by Byron M'Guiness,’ entitled ‘Mephisto,’ new music by Mr. D. Caldicott and Mr. Ernest Bucalossi, which, produced on Whit Monday, 14 June 1887, was played for some weeks as an after piece at the Royalty Theatre, London; his brother taking the part of Mephisto, and Miss Constance Gilchrist that of Marguerite.
A warm admirer of Elizabethan prose, Henley projected the republication of a series of Tudor translations which, edited and prefaced by special scholars and begun in 1892 with Florio's translation of Montaigne's ‘Essays,’ was completed by the issue of the Tudor Bible, the preface for which he did not live to finish. With Mr. J. S. Farmer he was engaged for many years in compiling a ‘Dictionary of Slang and its Analogues,’ issued in parts only to subscribers (1894–1904), which was almost finished at the time of his death. With Mr. T. F. Henderson he prepared the centenary edition of the poetry of Robert Burns, in four vols. (1896–7), contributing to the last volume an elaborate essay, which was also published separately, on the poet's ‘life, genius and achievement.’ An edition of ‘Byron's Letters and Verse,’ volume i., with vivid biographical sketches of Byron's friends and other persons mentioned in the letters, appeared in 1897; but, owing to copyright difficulties, the project was abandoned. In 1901 he edited the Edinburgh folio Shakespeare. He contributed a preface to the poetry of Wilfrid Blunt (1895), and to the collected edition of the poems of T. E. Brown (1900); introductory essays to editions of Smollett (1899), Hazlitt (1902–4), and Fielding (1903); and prefaces to various novels in the American edition de luxe of the works of Charles Dickens. Amongst his latest essays was that on ‘Othello,’ for the Caxton Shakespeare (1910), edited by Sir Sidney Lee. In 1891, under the title of ‘Lyra Heroica,’ he published a selection of English verse ‘commemorative of heroic action or illustrative of heroic sentiment,’ of which a school edition with notes by L. Cope-Cornford and W. W. Greg was printed in 1892; in 1894 with Mr. Charles Whibley, a ‘Book of English Prose’; in 1895 a ‘London Garland from Four Centuries of Verse,’ and in 1897 ‘English Lyrics: Chaucer to Pope.’
In 1893 Henley received the degree of LL.D. from the University of St. Andrews; in 1898 he was granted a civil list pension of 225l. a year. Considerations of health induced him, after experimenting with various suburban residences about London, to remove in 1899 to Worthing, though he retained a flat in London, which he occupied at intervals. In 1901 he removed to Woking. A nervous shock, due to an accident while leaving a moving railway carriage, seriously affected his health, and he died at Woking on 11 June 1903. His body was cremated at Woking and the ashes were brought to Cockayne Hatley, Bedfordshire.
Henley married at Edinburgh, in Jan. 1878, Anna, daughter of Edward Boyle, engineer, of Edinburgh, and Marianne Mackie. She survived him and in 1904 was granted a civil list pension of 1251. The only child, Margaret, died at the age of five years in 1894. She is the 'Reddy' of Mr. J. M. Barrie's 'Sentimental Tommy'; there is a painting in oil of her by Charles Wellington Furse, A.R.A. [q. v. Suppl. II], and a crayon sketch by the Marchioness of Granby (Duchess of Rutland). She was buried in the churchyard of Cockayne Hatley, where a tombstone, designed by Onslow Ford, with beautiful bronze work by the artist, is erected to her.
Henley was over the average height, broad-shouldered, and, notwithstanding his illnesses, physically vigorous and energetic. His powerful he was crowned by strong, bushy yellow hair, which had a tendency towards the perpendicular; latterly it became white. He possessed pleasant and expressive blue eyes, but was extremely short-sighted. Physically he contrasted strikingly with the shadowy R. L. Stevenson. Debarred by his lameness and uncertain health from various pastimes and diversions, he obtained much enjoyment from conversation, and was an admirable listener and inquirer as well as talker. In Stevenson's essay, 'Talk and Talkers,' he is cleverly portrayed under the pseudonym 'Burly'; but the description applies chiefly to his earlier years and largely to special bouts of discussion with the Stevensons; in his later years his manner was less 'boisterous and piratical.' Although capable under excitement of much picturesque denunciation, he was in conversation, for the most part, quietly humorous, frank, robust, and genial. Henley's collective works appeared in 1908 in a Umited edition in six volumes; vols. i. and ii. poems, including, in an appendix, some published in earlier volumes or in anthologies but not reprinted by him in his definitive edition; vols. iii. and iv. essays not previously collected; and vols. v. and vi. 'Views and Reviews.' The essays include those on Fielding, Smollett, Hazlitt and Burns; 'Byron's World'; and an unrevised selection from contributions to the 'Pall Mall Magazine.' There is a bust of Henley by Rodin (1886), a drawing by William Rothenstein (1897), and. an oil painting by William Nicholson (1901). A sketch by 'Spy' (Leslie Ward), which, though touched with caricature, is an admirable likeness, was made for 'Vanity Fair' in 1897. On 11 July 1907 a memorial of Henley, consisting of a bust by Rodin in bronze, a replica of that of 1886, set in white marble, was unveiled by the Earl of Plymouth in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral, London. It was erected by his friends and admirers, the bust being a free gift by Rodin.
[Obituary notices; Stevenson's Life and Letters; the Henley Memorial, 1907; A Blurred Memory of Childhood, by Roden Shields (a fellow patient as a boy with Henley in the Infirmary), in Cornhill Mag., May 1905; William Ernest Henley, by Sidney Low, ib., Sept. 1903; Mrs. W. Y. Sellar's Recollections, ib., Dec. 1910; Portraits of the Henleys by Francis Watt in Art Journal, Feb. 1906; information from Mrs. Henley and Mr. Alfred Wareing personal knowledge. There is a list of Henley's signed contributions to magazines and reviews in a bibliographical note in English Illustrated Mag., vol. xxix.]