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A Criticism of William Ernest Henley's Poems

by David Nutt

‘If I were king,’ says Mr. Henley, in one of his most modest rondeaus,

‘Art should aspire, yet ugliness be dear;
Beauty, the shaft, should speed with wit for feather;
And love, sweet love, should never fall to sere,
         If I were king.’

And these lines contain, if not the best criticism of his own work, certainly a very complete statement of his aim and motive as a poet.  His little Book of Verses reveals to us an artist who is seeking to find new methods of expression and has not merely a delicate sense of beauty and a brilliant, fantastic wit, but a real passion also for what is horrible, ugly, or grotesque.  No doubt, everything that is worthy of existence is worthy also of art—at least, one would like to think so—but while echo or mirror can repeat for us a beautiful thing, to render artistically a thing that is ugly requires the most exquisite alchemy of form, the most subtle magic of transformation.  To me there is more of the cry of Marsyas than of the singing of Apollo in the earlier poems of Mr. Henley’s volume, In HospitalRhymes and Rhythms, as he calls them.  But it is impossible to deny their power.  Some of them are like bright, vivid pastels; others like charcoal drawings, with dull blacks and murky whites; others like etchings with deeply-bitten lines, and abrupt contrasts, and clever colour-suggestions.  In fact, they are like anything and everything, except perfected poems—that they certainly are not.  They are still in the twilight.  p. 124They are preludes, experiments, inspired jottings in a note-book, and should be heralded by a design of ‘Genius Making Sketches.’  Rhyme gives architecture as well as melody to verse; it gives that delightful sense of limitation which in all the arts is so pleasurable, and is, indeed, one of the secrets of perfection; it will whisper, as a French critic has said, ‘things unexpected and charming, things with strange and remote relations to each other,’ and bind them together in indissoluble bonds of beauty; and in his constant rejection of rhyme, Mr. Henley seems to me to have abdicated half his power.  He is a roi en exil who has thrown away some of the strings of his lute; a poet who has forgotten the fairest part of his kingdom.

However, all work criticizes itself.  Here is one of Mr. Henley’s inspired jottings.  According to the temperament of the reader, it will serve either as a model or as the reverse:

As with varnish red and glistening
   Dripped his hair; his feet were rigid;
   Raised, he settled stiffly sideways:
   You could see the hurts were spinal.

He had fallen from an engine,
   And been dragged along the metals.
   It was hopeless, and they knew it;
   So they covered him, and left him.

As he lay, by fits half sentient,
   Inarticulately moaning,
   With his stockinged feet protruded
   Sharp and awkward from the blankets,

To his bed there came a woman,
   Stood and looked and sighed a little,
   And departed without speaking,
   As himself a few hours after.

I was told she was his sweetheart.
   They were on the eve of marriage.
   She was quiet as a statue,
   But her lip was gray and writhen.

p. 125In this poem, the rhythm and the music, such as it is, are obvious—perhaps a little too obvious.  In the following I see nothing but ingeniously printed prose.  It is a description—and a very accurate one—of a scene in a hospital ward.  The medical students are supposed to be crowding round the doctor.  What I quote is only a fragment, but the poem itself is a fragment:

So shows the ring
Seen, from behind, round a conjuror
Doing his pitch in the street.
High shoulders, low shoulders, broad shoulders, narrow ones,
Round, square, and angular, serry and shove;
While from within a voice,
Gravely and weightily fluent,
Sounds; and then ceases; and suddenly
(Look at the stress of the shoulders!)
Out of a quiver of silence,
Over the hiss of the spray,
Comes a low cry, and the sound
Of breath quick intaken through teeth
Clenched in resolve.  And the master
Breaks from the crowd, and goes,
Wiping his hands,
To the next bed, with his pupils
Flocking and whispering behind him.

Now one can see.
Case Number One
Sits (rather pale) with his bedclothes
Stripped up, and showing his foot
(Alas, for God’s image!)
Swaddled in wet white lint
Brilliantly hideous with red.

Théophile Gautier once said that Flaubert’s style was meant to be read, and his own style to be looked at.  Mr. Henley’s unrhymed rhythms form very dainty designs, from a typographical point of view.  From the point of view of literature, they are a series of vivid, concentrated impressions, with a keen grip of fact, a terrible actuality, and an p. 126almost masterly power of picturesque presentation.  But the poetic form—what of that?

Well, let us pass to the later poems, to the rondels and rondeaus, the sonnets and quatorzains, the echoes and the ballades.  How brilliant and fanciful this is!  The Toyokuni colour-print that suggested it could not be more delightful.  It seems to have kept all the wilful fantastic charm of the original:

Was I a Samurai renowned,
Two-sworded, fierce, immense of bow?
A histrion angular and profound?
A priest? a porter?—Child, although
I have forgotten clean, I know
That in the shade of Fujisan,
What time the cherry-orchards blow,
I loved you once in old Japan.

As here you loiter, flowing-gowned
And hugely sashed, with pins a-row
Your quaint head as with flamelets crowned,
Demure, inviting—even so,
When merry maids in Miyako
To feel the sweet o’ the year began,
And green gardens to overflow,
I loved you once in old Japan.

Clear shine the hills; the rice-fields round
Two cranes are circling; sleepy and slow,
A blue canal the lake’s blue bound
Breaks at the bamboo bridge; and lo!
Touched with the sundown’s spirit and glow,
I see you turn, with flirted fan,
Against the plum-tree’s bloomy snow . . .
I loved you once in old Japan!


Dear, ’twas a dozen lives ago
But that I was a lucky man
The Toyokuni here will show:
I loved you—once—in old Japan!

p. 127This rondel, too—how light it is, and graceful!—

We’ll to the woods and gather may
Fresh from the footprints of the rain.
We’ll to the woods, at every vein
To drink the spirit of the day.

The winds of spring are out at play,
The needs of spring in heart and brain.
We’ll to the woods and gather may
Fresh from the footprints of the rain.

The world’s too near her end, you say?
Hark to the blackbird’s mad refrain!
It waits for her, the vast Inane?
Then, girls, to help her on the way
We’ll to the woods and gather may.

There are fine verses, also, scattered through this little book; some of them very strong, as—

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.

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.

Others with a true touch of romance, as—

Or ever the knightly years were gone
   With the old world to the grave,
I was a king in Babylon,
   And you were a Christian slave.

And here and there we come across such felicitous phrases as—

         In the sand
The gold prow-griffin claws a hold,


         The spires
Shine and are changed,

and many other graceful or fanciful lines, even ‘the p. 128green sky’s minor thirds’ being perfectly right in its place, and a very refreshing bit of affectation in a volume where there is so much that is natural.

However, Mr. Henley is not to be judged by samples.  Indeed, the most attractive thing in the book is no single poem that is in it, but the strong humane personality that stands behind both flawless and faulty work alike, and looks out through many masks, some of them beautiful, and some grotesque, and not a few misshapen.  In the case with most of our modern poets, when we have analysed them down to an adjective, we can go no further, or we care to go no further; but with this book it is different.  Through these reeds and pipes blows the very breath of life.  It seems as if one could put one’s hand upon the singer’s heart and count its pulsations.  There is something wholesome, virile and sane about the man’s soul.  Anybody can be reasonable, but to be sane is not common; and sane poets are as rare as blue lilies, though they may not be quite so delightful.

Let the great winds their worst and wildest blow,
Or the gold weather round us mellow slow;
We have fulfilled ourselves, and we can dare,
And we can conquer, though we may not share
In the rich quiet of the afterglow,
         What is to come,

is the concluding stanza of the last rondeau—indeed, of the last poem in the collection, and the high, serene temper displayed in these lines serves at once as keynote and keystone to the book.  The very lightness and slightness of so much of the work, its careless moods and casual fancies, seem to suggest a nature that is not primarily interested in art—a nature, like Sordello’s, passionately enamoured of life, one to which lyre and lute are p. 129things of less importance.  From this mere joy of living, this frank delight in experience for its own sake, this lofty indifference, and momentary unregretted ardours, come all the faults and all the beauties of the volume.  But there is this difference between them—the faults are deliberate, and the result of much study; the beauties have the air of fascinating impromptus.  Mr. Henley’s healthy, if sometimes misapplied, confidence in the myriad suggestions of life gives him his charm.  He is made to sing along the highways, not to sit down and write.  If he took himself more seriously, his work would become trivial.

A Book of Verses.  By William Ernest Henley.  (David Nutt.)

Book: Reflection on the Important Things