The Greatest Poetry Of William Ernest Henley: Who Was He?

William Ernest Henley was an English poet, known for having only one leg. He was born in 1849. He married and had a child (who died at the tender age of five) between writing poems that would one day rocket his name to fame — but not before he died of tuberculosis when he was only 53. He passed away while resting at home in Woking, Surrey. He is perhaps best known for his poem “Invictus,” which follows:

Out of the night that covers me,

      Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

      For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

      I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

      My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

      Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

      Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

      How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

      I am the captain of my soul.

Henley was sick all his life, having come down with tuberculosis when he was only 12 years old. That bout with the disease forced surgeons to amputate his leg in 1868, the same year his father passed away. The disease left him in great pain almost all of his young life. 

Robert Louis Stevenson admitted once in a letter that his character “Long John Silver” was inspired by his friendship with Henley. He wrote Henley directly after publishing Treasure Island ni 1883: “I will now made a confession: It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver … the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you.”

And his departed daughter Margaret actually inspired a famous character as well. J.M. Barrie chose the name “Wendy” in Peter Pan for precisely this reason.

But what kind of a man was Henley? Stevenson’s grandson described him thusly: “…a great, glowing, massive-shouldered fellow with a big red beard and a crutch; jovial, astoundingly clever, and with a laugh that rolled like music; he had an unimaginable fire and vitality; he wept one off one’s feet.”

His brother recounted that Henley was in severe pain in the periods just before his tuberculosis abscesses were drained — but directly afterward he was known for his boundless energy.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that such a wonderful poet was victim to such a difficult life. That’s what they say about all writers, of course.