W E HENLEY – A TIMELY REMINDER

Posted: September 13, 2014 in Chat
Tags: , , , , ,

W-E-Henley1

W E Henley is mostly known as one of a group of writers: poets of the 1890s. Straight-away we have notions of decadence, absinthe, Oscar Wilde, of Aubrey Beardsley, of Art for Arts’ sake.
Henley was at his best as a writer of particulars, of London; not so much the opium fume of decadence’s London Particular, but its populace, impressions of place.

He is now mostly known for his poem INVICTUS, as quoted by Barack Obama, but most notably by Nelson Mandela on Robbin Island:

…………………………………………
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.

The point here is that Henley was not just parroting some Latin Stoic from centuries ago, but knew what he was writing about.
At the age of twelve Henley was diagnosed with TB; three years’ later he lost his left leg below the knee. This was also the time of his father’s death, which brought the creditors knocking.

William Ernest Henley was born in 1849, in Gloucester. He died in London, 1903. As you can guess from the dates TB took its toll on his health. There was another period of hospitalisation as his right foot was marked for amputation as well; Henley fought back: he knew of a surgeon etc. The foot was saved, but the outcome uneven. Analgesia and anesthetics involved employed ether by this period, and the role of bacteria in disease was making great strides. Hospitalisation was in Edinburgh; from there he sent his writing off and came to the attention of a thriving writing community.

From this period, and working as a journalist then editor in London, come a remarkable series of poems, portraits of hospital staff: In Hospital, published in 1875.

He became an intimate of many writers of the period, and reciprocal acknowledgement of the debt of friendship, to use a phrase, can be found in Robert Louis Stevenson using Henley for the model for Long John Silver in Treasure Island. Large of frame, strong personality, booming laugh – and the crutch.

He married; they had a daughter; she was ill through her short childhood, and died aged five. J M Barrie adopted her pet phrase for him for his chief character in Peter Pan: Wendy.

We see Henley’s work used again as the title of a Joe Orton play from 1964, The Ruffian on the Stair from his poem:

Madam Life’s a piece in bloom,
Death goes dogging everywhere:
She’s the tenant of the room,
He’s the ruffian on the stair.

Wormwoodiana Blogspot comments on Henley’s deliberate anti-decadence position,  and this is what we see above. Some of his work, however, found a home in their collections.
Henley’s admission into the literary world was an admission into London life: the two were one; what the publishers would accept were London subjects. And so the nation were fed the London choice. There was a proliferation of publications on London life – we see titles like London Types, London Nights, London Visions, Fleet Street Ecologues etc. In Symons’ Paris was an accepted equivalent. There was also a growing interest, in various forms, in people as subject matter. The Socialist ideals along with just a hint of Women’s Suffrage filtered through into literature.

Penguin Classics brought out a wide selection of poetry from the 1890s, called… Poetry of the 1890s.
First published in 1970, the book was reprinted in 1997. It carries a good selection of Henley work from his two major collections, In Hospital, and London Voluntaries (in Poems 1898).

His work can be bracing, particular his hospital portraits, but occasionally falls back on arch diction. His forms verge on free verse, and there the poems stand up well; at other times he allows rhyme scheme to dictate too often:

SCHERZANDO

Down through the ancient Strand
The spirit of October, mild and boon
And sauntering, takes his way
This golden end of afternoon,
As though the corn stood yellow in all the land
And the ripe apples dropped to harvest moon.

Lo! The round sun, half-down the western slope –
Seen as along an unglazed telescope –
…………………………………………………………………….
Gifting the long, lean, lanky street
And its abounding confluences of being
With aspects generous and bland.
……………………………………………………………………..

Echoes of Wordsworth perhaps, on Westminster Bridge; and also imagery for Pound’s Metro? And Eliot?

If we read on, we hear perhaps William Blake, taking a breath of London air:

And even the roar
of the strong streams of toil, that pause and pour
Eastward and westward, sounds suffused –
Seems as it were bemused
And blurred, and like the speech
………………………………………. 

 

I always go back to the portraits, though:

LADY-PROBATIONER

Some three, or five, or seven and thirty years;
A Roman nose; a dimpling double-chin;
Dark eyes, and shy that, ignorant of sin,
Are yet acquainted, it would seem, with tears….
………………………………………………………………….
Her plain print gown, prim cap, and bright steel chain
Look out of place on her, and I remain
Absorbed in her, as in a pleasant mystery.
…………………………………………………………………….
‘Do you like nursing?’ ‘Yes, Sir, very much.’
Somehow, I rather think she has a history.

 

STAFF-NURSE: NEW STYLE

Blue-eyed and bright of face, but waning fast
……………………………………………………………
I view her as she enters, day by day,
As a sweet sunset almost overpast
…………………………………………………………….
She talks of BEETHOVEN; frowns disapprobation
At BALZAC’s  name, sighs it at ‘poor GEORGE SAND’S’;
…………………………………………………………………….
Speaks Latin with a right accentuation;
And gives at need (as one who understands)
Draught, counsel, diagnosis, exhortation.

Is it me, or does anyone else hear Sir John Betjeman in that last one? Not just the title, which is very him, but also the tone. The tone, though, I find here has more warmth, and less of the baffled reserve, the edge of playful caricature of Betjeman. Henley seems genuinely interested in these characters as not just women, nurses, but as people in their own right. These poems catch the social and gender status of their subjects. At this period nurses, like school teachers and women in most areas of employ had to remain single, unmarried. And so we have the, to me slightly dubious, image of:

…… but waning fast
Into the sere of virginal decay
…………………………..

from STAFF-NURSE.

Once again the form constrains him from fuller exploration: the anecdotal and succinct phrasing of the sonnet he uses is not broken open to allow the people to breath fully.

The form is all, though, here. This was Henley’s disciplined self battling through illness, his consolidated fight against the black cloaked vampire of tuberculosis. Looking outwards, resisting the pull inwards to ennui and death.

One of Henley’s projects was to bring the language of the street into the closetted world of verse; his rhythms and diction pushed at the door to let in some air.
Another of his projects was to compile a Dictionary of Slang, which was a successful venture. Villon was translated with its usage. We can see his street lingo work pay off in MADAM LIFE.

If, like me,though,you are still wondering at those earlier pejorative phrases, the mocking tone, in MADAM LIFE then it’s worth another look. Why ‘piece’? And then why ‘Madam’ – it has the suggestions of ‘madame’, proprietor of a brothel. The poem ends:

With his kneebones at your chest,
And his knuckles in your throat,
You would reason — plead — protest!
Clutching at her petticoat;

But she’s heard it all before,
Well she knows you’ve had your fun,
Gingerly she gains the door,
And your little job is done.

Death and Life in cahoots against you! Like the gangster and his moll; she entraps you, he finishes the job. Henley’s vision of life was no cosy Victorian/late Victorian view of upright and honest males and Dickensian maidenliness. I don’t wish to build too much on one lyric, but the bracing and grim humour is revivifying to what he saw as a depleted and aesthete period.

And SCHERZANDO ends

………………………………………………….
Golden, all golden! In a golden glory
Long-lapsing down a golden coasted sky,
The day not dies but seems
Dispersed in whafts and drifts of gold…..
…………………………………………………..

The man could praise and rhapsodise, recognise the wonder of the moment, like the best.

WEH2

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