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  • The Publication and Reception of W. E. Henley’s A Book of Verses:“The Diversity of Contemporary Tongues”
  • Edward H. Cohen


Of all the books published in London in 1888, none was more widely reviewed and variously received than W. E. Henley's A Book of Verses. Yet John Connell, in his prizewinning life of Henley, referred to but two notices.1 And J. H. Buckley, in a fine critical reading of Henley's work, cited only eight.2 Some years ago, aided by my discovery of the publisher's advertising pamphlet, I identified seventeen.3 Now, a recently discovered scrapbook, in which Henley's wife Anna recorded nearly all the reviews, reveals more than forty.4 Many of these were contributed by the most celebrated writers of the fin de siècle, including J. M. Barrie, Bernard Shaw, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Symons, and Oscar Wilde. And nearly all of them offered opinions of the sequence that opens the volume, In Hospital, which has been recognized as "one of the starting points of the English poetry of the modern crisis."5 The purpose of this article is to provide a checklist of the reviews and to present a selection of remarks in which readers may discern late-Victorian attitudes toward realism in poetry.

Henley, a bookseller's son, was born in Gloucester in 1849. He was respectably educated there at the Crypt Grammar School, and in 1867 he passed the Oxford Local Schools Examination. But in his youth Henley had contracted tuberculosis of the bones in his hands and feet, and his early life was a sad chronicle of medical mistreatment and literary misadventure. Instead of going up to Oxford, he spent ten months at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London, where he suffered the amputation of his left leg; three years in East End lodgings and taverns, where he pursued the bohemian way and penned poor imitations of Swinburne's Poems and Ballads; and a year at the Royal Sea Bathing Infirmary at [End Page 184] Margate, where the physicians were unable to arrest his infection. In August 1873 Henley was admitted, as Joseph Lister's patient, to the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, where he would spend twenty months as a test case for the new antiseptic system of surgery.

Shortly before he left Margate, Henley wrote to a friend in London: "If I ever write again, it will be something very different to all that I have hitherto done."6 It was during his protracted convalescence in Lister's wards that he began to transform his hospital episode into poetry. In Hospital is an extraordinary sequence, arranged from "Enter Patient" to "Discharged," in which Henley threads accounts of personal experiences, sketches of infirmary life, and portraits of physicians, nurses, and fellow patients. Some of the poems are cast in conventional forms, others in free verse. Some are conceived as dramatic occasions, others as lyric expressions. He situates himself as the poet in his poems, and presents himself as both poet and patient, but limits his horizon to the patient's perspective. He selects grim details—"corridors and stairs of stone and iron"—to signify the reality of hospital life. He describes sad cases and their symptoms—a ploughman whose face is "wan and sunken," a suicide whose throat is "strangely bandaged," a casualty whose hair drips "red and glistening"—to illustrate what Foucault has called the "truth" of debility and disease.7 But Henley offers neither moral nor meaning in his poems. Indeed, he once wrote that his aim in the completed sequence was simply to "quintessentialize" his memories of the experience that had defined his life.

The hospital poems were published in three versions. The first, "Hospital Outlines," comprised eighteen sonnets printed in the July 1875 Cornhill Magazine. The second, thirteen free-verse "Hospital Sketches," appeared in a charity book, Voluntaries for an East London Hospital, in 1887. And the third, a conflation of the 1875 and 1887 texts, was the completed In Hospital sequence of twenty-eight dramatic lyrics included in A Book of Verses. Leslie Stephen's decision to print the first series of these hospital poems in the Cornhill has been hailed...


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