The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

VI. Lesser Poets of the Middle and Later Nineteenth Century

§ 56. W. E. Henley

General appreciation of the poems of William Ernest Henley has not, perhaps, been helped by coterie admiration, however generous and eager. But they occupy a peculiar and, in their way, a commanding position among their fellows. Henley tried the artificial forms, as has been mentioned above; but they did not entirely suit his touch. The best, by far, is the splendid and quite serious rondeau, What is to come? which concludes his own collection of them under the sub-title (itself a half confession) Bric-à-Brac. Next to it, but much lower, may come, in the lighter kind, the ballade which opens the set I loved you once in Old Japan.

But, with him, it was a case of “Not here, O Apollo,” and the poems by which he obtained, and will keep a place, in English poetry, as well as the most characteristic of those which may not have so fair a fate, are markedly different. Henley, from a rather early period, was a student not merely of modern French light literature and poetry but of French art; and these influences probably brought it about that he was almost, if not quite, the introducer of impressionism into English verse. The extremely striking Hospital Verses, written during a long sojourn in the Edinburgh infirmary—where the skill of Lister did what was possible to minimise an affection of the limbs which left Henley a cripple—are entirely of this class. When restored to comparative health, he took to journalism, and, for nearly twenty years, was an active and, for the whole of the rest of his life, an occasional contributor or, more frequently and preferably, editor—an occupation for which he had remarkable talents. His actual production, however, was never very large, though, both in verse and prose, it was exceedingly characteristic; and his abstinence from the excessive collar-work to which most tolerably successful journalists and working men of letters are tempted gave him time to write as much poetry as, probably, he would have written in any case—his bad health and his not long life being duly considered. Henley’s main characteristic in life and letters alike was masterfulness; and it should be left to individual taste and judgment to decide whether a quality which almost as often leads men ill as well instigated more or less than it injured in his case. It certainly led him to violence and eccentricity of form and expression; and (though this affected his prose more than his verse) to a rather perverse adoption and propagation of opinions, not so much because he held them himself as because former writers had held the opposite. It may be doubted whether he gained much by his fondness for rimeless measures; or by his symbolist, and almost futurist, if not Blastist (for Henley was singularly anticipatory of later developments in the fringes of literature), adoration of “speed.” But, In Hospital can at no time be read without admiration; and very beautiful things will be found among the again characteristically, but, in a way, unfairly, entitled Echoes. There are echoes (all but the greatest poetry of the period is an echo, though a multifarious and often a beautiful one) of old ballads, of standard verse, of modern singers as various as Tennyson and Emily Brontë and Swinburne. But, even in these, as, for instance, in the best known of his verses except, perhaps, the portrait of Stevenson, Out of the Night that covers me, Henley almost always contrives to blend an original tone; and, sometimes, the echo is so faint, and derivable from so many separate sources, many, even, so doubtfully present, that the title becomes a mere polite or ironic apology. Such pieces are In the Year that’s come and gone, Love, his flying feather, and, at least, the beginning and end (for the middle is not so good) of the splendidly swinging ballad with the half refrain

  • I was a king in Babylon
  • And you were a Christian slave,
  • with not a few others. In his later books, The Song of the Sword, Hawthorn and Lavender, London Voluntaries, Rhymes and Rhythms, including his admirable “England! my England!,” he sometimes allowed the violence which has been noticed to remain unchastened, if he did not even lash it up; but this violence never sprang, as it often does, from weakness, but only from an erroneous theory, from a naturally fervid temperament and, beyond all doubt, very largely from the irritation of harassing disease. Of him, the old parable is surely justified as to the union of sweetness and strength, though the other combination of sweetness and light may not always have been present.

    The dividing year of the century produced two poets, neither of whom can receive extended notice here but who are worth study both intrinsically and historically.