HENLEY, William Ernest

Born: August 23, 1849 in Gloucester, Gloucestershire, England

Died: June 11, 1903 in Woking, near London, England

William Ernest Henley was a prolific English poet and journalist who encouraged and supported many of his contemporaries. He was the oldest of five sons born to a Gloucester book seller, William Henley, and Emma Morgan Henley. He suffered from asthma, tuberculosis and osteomyelitis and, as a child, had one foot amputated. He attended the Crypt School where he was influenced by poet and teacher Thomas Edward Brown. Although he had plans to attend Oxford, the death of his father meant that he couldn't afford the tuition.

He spent 1873 and 1874 in an Edinburgh hospital. Under the care of an innovative surgeon, Joseph Lister, his second foot was saved from amputation. During these years, he read voluminous numbers of books and learned French, Spanish and Italian. He fell in love with Anna Boyle, the sister of another patient, and married her in April 1878. They had one daughter who died at age six.

In his collection of poems, Hospital Sketches, published in 1875 in the journal Cornhill, he tells of the painful days spent in the hospital. He is one of the first English poets to use free verse. His most famous poem, Invictus, published in 1875, includes the famous last lines, "I am the master of my own fate/I am the captain of my soul,"

While in hospital, he befriended Robert Louis Stevenson. He collaborated on four plays with Stevenson , none of which were successful. Stevenson, who described Henley as boisterous and piratical, modeled the character Long John Silver in his book Treasure Island after him. The friendship ended, however, over a bitter dispute.

He moved London in 1877 and spent the next ten years working as a writer and editor for publications such as London, Saturday Review, Vanity Fair, and the Magazine of Art. After this period, he moved to Edinburgh to edit papers such as the Scotts Observer and the National Observer. In these positions, he increased the awareness of Scottish culture and promoted the works of Rudyard Kipling, W.B. Yeats, Thomas Hardy, and H.G. Wells. He earned a reputation among these young writers as a benevolent bully.

He then moved back to England and continued to work as a writer and collaborator. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Edinburgh in 1894 and published his last book Poems in 1898. He was cremated and the remains taken to Cockayne Hatley, Bedfordshire. A bronze bust, made by Rodin, remains in Saint Paul's Cathedral as a tribute to the author.