Authors: William Ernest Henley

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English poet, critic, and playwright

Author Works


A Book of Verses, 1888 (includes “In Hospital: Rhymes and Rhythms”)

The Song of the Sword, and Other Verses, 1892

London Voluntaries, 1893

Poems, 1898

Hawthorn and Lavender, 1899

Drama (With Robert Louis Stevenson):

Deacon Brodie, pr. 1880, pb. 1888 (finished version)

Admiral Guinea, pb. 1883

Beau Austin, pb. 1884

Macaire, pb. 1885


Views and Reviews: Essays in Appreciation, 1890

The Selected Letters of William Ernest Henley, 1999 (Damian Atkinson, editor)


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.”{$I[AN]9810000521}{$I[A]Henley, William Ernest}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Henley, William Ernest}{$I[tim]1849;Henley, William Ernest}

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 was changed to National Observer. In this paper, Henley’s main purpose was to promote interest in literature and art. He published the work of several well-known writers and of many who were to become famous, including Stevenson, J. M. Barrie, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, and William Butler Yeats.

Henley initially made his reputation in the United States rather than in England, where he was recognized as a great friend of the arts rather than as an artist of the highest caliber. George Meredith, in The Henley Memorial, called him “one of the main supports of good literature of our time.” His interests did indeed range widely. In 1890, Henley published Views and Reviews, scraps from fourteen years of journalism, on English and French writers. In 1902, he published a similar volume on art.

Among his many accomplishments was his editing, in 1901, of the Edinburgh folio Shakespeare, and his contributing of introductory essays to the works of various authors. At his death at Woking on June 11, 1903, his body was cremated and his ashes taken to Cockayne Hatley, Bedfordshire.

BibliographyBuckley, 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.
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