Thursday, October 02, 2014

`The Charm, the Common Sense'

When memorization was still judged an essential skill for public-school students, and a head full of poetry a gift for life, my eighth-grade English and Latin teacher had us commit William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” to memory. Surely you know the rousing final stanza: 

“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.” 

Such sentiments are easy to mock and difficult to live. Anthony Daniels (Theodore Dalrymple) weighs Henley and another one-legged and largely forgotten poet, W.H. Davies, fairly and seriously in “Not a Leg to Stand On”: “It seems a hard fate to write a lot and be remembered by only a few lines, until one remembers that most of us will be remembered by not as much as even that.” As usual, Dalrymple reminds us that literature is not a cloister, that it mingles promiscuously with life. The Belgian zoologist Pierre-Joseph van Beneden, a parasite specialist, was the first to describe “mutualism” between different species, the opposite of parasitism. Both parties benefit. So it is with books and life, three times over (writers and life, readers and writers, readers and life). They thrive off each other, neither depleting the other. When Dalrymple visits “the largest second-hand bookshop devoted to poetry in the British Isles,” he writes: 

“I regard the owners of such specialist bookshops as the unsung heroes of our culture, for surely neither wealth nor fame can have been their aim in life; they are self-consciously the guardians and conservators of our heritage.” 

Henley (1849–1903) suffered tuberculosis of the bones in both legs, and his left was amputated below the knee in 1865 when he was sixteen. He wrote “Invictus” (Latin for “unconquered”) ten years later and published it in his first poetry collection, Book of Verses, in 1888, and his life is at least as inspirational as his poem. Dr. Joseph Lister, Pasteur’s great successor and champion of antisepsis, is credited with saving Henley’s other leg. Son of a poor book dealer (like Dr. Johnson, as Dalrymple notes), Henley began writing poems while hospitalized in Edinburgh, and Leslie Stephen published some in Cornhill Magazine. Lister introduced Henley to Robert Louis Stevenson. They became friends and eventually wrote four plays together. Stevenson modeled Long John Silver on his friend.  In 1878, Henley married Anna Boyle, the sister of a fellow hospital patient. Their daughter, Margaret Emma, died from cerebral meningitis in 1894 at the age of six, and J.M. Barrie used her as the model for Wendy Darling in Peter Pan. Henley went on to edit four magazines and lived one of those hearty, industrious late-Victorian lives. He was the Teddy Roosevelt of English literature, the exponent of vigorous living, a job later taken over by a greater writer, Rudyard Kipling. 

My university library has the five-volume Works of William Ernest Henley published by Macmillan and Co. in 1921. Vol. II, Essays, reflects Henley’s literary tastes, with lengthy pieces melding biography and criticism devoted to Fielding, Smollett, Hazlitt, Burns and Byron, and shorter pieces on Shakespeare, Balzac and Hugo, among others. Hazlitt brings out the enthusiast in Henley. After admitting “his politics are not mine,” he writes: 

“As a writer, therefore, it is with Lamb that I would bracket him: they are dissimilars, but they go gallantly and naturally together—par nobile fratrum [Horace, Satires. II. 3. 243: “a noble pair of brothers”]. Give us these two, with some ripe Cobbett, a volume of Southey, some Wordsworth, certain pages of Shelley, a great deal of the Byron who wrote letters, and we get the right prose of the time. The best of it all, perhaps, is the best of Lamb. But Hazlitt’s, for different qualities, is so imminent and shining a second that I hesitate as to pre-eminency. Probably the race is Lamb’s. But Hazlitt is ever Hazlitt; and at his highest moments Hazlitt is hard to beat, and has not these many years been beaten.” 

In its obituary, the Times likened Henley to Dr. Johnson: “Both had strong veins of sentiment beneath loud and ferocious talk against sentimentality; both were generous and full-blooded; both rioted in dialectic; and both started in dialectic with the assumption that their opponents deserved to be blown from the cannon’s mouth.” 

In W.E. Henley (Constable, 1949), the poet’s biographer, John Connell, picks up the comparison: 

“The bulky, clumsy figure; the charm, the common sense, the fundamental decency and kindliness; the hot temper; the thrust and sledge-hammer in argument; the deep and tenacious sincerity of affectionate friendships, and the rather folorn dependence on these friendships: in all these Henley was very like Johnson. 

“But Henley never had a Boswell.” 

[About “Invictus”: In Casablanca, CaptainRenault (Claude Rains) recites the final lines to Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), and the “final written statement” of Timothy McVeigh before he was executed was a handwritten copy of the poem.]

No comments: