William Ernest Henley, born August 23, 1849, was a British poet of the late Victorian era. Best known for the poem “Invictus,” Henley is one of the most influential literary minds of his time. His writings were characterized by staunch conservative opinions, a stoic approach toward life, and a passion for the written word. He suffered from tuberculosis, an illness that would be both a blessing and a curse, as it pushed him toward writing his now-famous impressionist poems and claimed his life at the age of 53.
William Ernest Henley was born in Gloucester, England to Mary Morgan and William Henley and was the eldest of six children. Henley attended the Crypt School in Gloucester from 1861 to 1867. He developed a close friendship with the school headmaster. At age 12, his left leg was amputated below the knee as he suffered from tuberculosis of the bones. The amputation of his leg, and his lifelong battle with tuberculosis, would later inspire him to write the poem “Invictus,” his most famous work.
Upon graduating from school, Henley moved to London, seeking work as a journalist. Unfortunately, his illness worsened, and he spent much of his time confined to a hospital bed. Between 1873 and 1875, he remained in hospital, inspiring him to pen a series of impressionist poems about his surroundings. Henley called the collection of poems “In Hospital,” published in 1875. Thanks to the skill of physicians at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, his health improved, and he got to work again, this time as the editor of “The London,” where he anonymously contributed several poems.
In 1878 Henley married Hanna Johnson Boyle, whom he had met during his stay in hospital. The two had a daughter named Margaret, who also suffered from frail health. Margaret died at the age of five, which profoundly affected her parents. Still, with his trademark stoicism, Henley soldiered on, finding work as the editor of “The Magazine of Art,” then “The Scots Observer,” which became “The National Observer” after the publication moved to London in 1891. Henley never fully recovered from his tuberculosis, and on July 11, 1903, he passed away from complications related to the illness. He was buried in a churchyard in Bedfordshire.
Henley pens several poems while recovering from tuberculosis in hospital, publishing them in 1875.
Henley marries Hanna Boyle.
Henley publishes “London Voluntaries.”
Henley retires from his position as editor of “The National Observer.”
Why We Love William Ernest Henley
He was stubborn and stoic
Henley’s stoic acceptance of his illness and the hardships he faced in life were, perhaps, his most outstanding qualities. He never felt sorry for himself and never gave up on his dreams because of his health problems.
He was politically tolerant
Henley was a staunch conservative and imperialist. He also believed in artistic autonomy. When he worked as an editor and critic, he allowed his contributors to express their opinions freely, even if they were liberal views.
He inspired countless people
His personality, beliefs, and writings influenced countless people across multiple generations. Nelson Mandela once said that Henley’s poem “Invictus” gave him the strength and courage to endure his detention on Robben Island.
5 Surprising Facts
He inspired Long John Silver
Henley, who had his leg amputated as a young boy, was the inspiration for one-legged pirate Long John Silver in “Treasure Island.”
He was friends with another famous writer
Henley was close friends with Robert Louis Stevenson, author of “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
His daughter lives on in fiction
Henley’s daughter Margaret, who died of meningitis at age five, inspired Wendy Darling, a character in J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan.”
He almost lost his right leg, too
Henley battled tuberculosis throughout his life and would have amputated his right leg, too, if it wasn’t for the pioneering skills of British surgeon Joseph Lister.
He rests with his daughter
Henley loved his daughter deeply, and when he died, he left behind instructions to have his body cremated and the ashes placed in his daughter’s grave.
William Ernest Henley FAQs
What is the meaning of the poem Invictus?
‘Invictus’ means ‘unconquerable’ in Latin; the poem speaks of courage in facing adversity and holding onto one’s dignity despite life’s indignities.
What was William Ernest Henley famous for?
Henley is a celebrated British critic, poet, and editor.
Why did William Ernest Henley get his leg amputated?
Henley suffered from tuberculosis of the bones, which required the amputation of his left leg from below the knee.
William Ernest Henley’s birthday dates