William Ernest Henley is an interesting figure because most of his poetry is awkwardly mechanical and dull, though he is very well known for one poem (largely for a few lines that, in isolation, capture the popular imagination). To make matters more puzzling yet, he did write one fine poem—and it is rarely read.
Henley became a writer and the editor of various magazines in late Victorian London, but though he was robust in appearance he had suffered from tuberculosis since he was a child, and one leg had to be amputated below the knee. Years later, he spent a long time in the hospital fighting the disease, and he died in1903 at the age of fifty-three. Some of his poems were included in “The Oxford book of English Verse” in 1900, and in the 1939 edition as well. There, we have Invictus; Maritae Sorori; and England, My England. “The Oxford Book of Modern Verse” of 1936 also included some of his work: Ballade of Dead Actors; Invictus; All in a Garden Green; and Since Those We Love and Those We Hate. As this shows, Henley was still well thought of in the first third of the last century. Invictus, the poem I referred to as having the memorable lines, is surely the one most often printed now. The other poem I mentioned—which is very good—isn’t in either of these lists: it is Madam Life’s a Piece in Bloom.
Let’s look at Since Those We Love and Those We Hate as an example of his mechanical (and dull) poetry; then, at Invictus, his most popular poem; and finally, at Madame Life’s a Piece in Bloom. But because a particular refrain is important in Since Those We Love and Those We Hate, so we should take a look at it before going on. It is “over the hills and far away,” which has been used in a number of traditional English songs. The most interesting is probably from John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera,” which was first performed in 1728 and has been a fixture ever since. Here, we have a duet between Macheath, a highwayman, and Polly, a fence’s daughter.
- Were I laid on Greenland’s coast,
And in my arms embrac’d my lass;
Warm amidst eternal frost,
Too soon the half year’s night would pass.
- Were I sold on Indian Soil,
Soon as the burning Day was clos’d
I could mock the sultry Toil
When on my Charmer’s Breast repos’d.
- And I would love you all the day,
- Every Night would kiss and play,
- If with me you’d fondly stray
- Over the hills and far away.
Half year’s night in the third line refers to the increasingly short days as one goes north in the midst of winter, until—north of the arctic circle—it remains dark for twenty-four hours. Sold in the fifth line refers to slavery, and sultry in the seventh simply means “hot.” We will come back to this poem in a bit. Now let’s look at Henley’s poem.
Since Those We Love and Those We Hate
Since those we love and those we hate,
With all things mean and all things great,
Pass in desperate disarray
Over the hills and far away:
It must be, Dear, that late or soon,
Out of the ken of the watching moon,
We shall abscond with Yesterday
Over the hills and far away.
What does it matter? As I deem,
We shall but follow as brave a dream
As ever smiled a wanton May
Over the hills and far away.
We shall remember, and in pride,
Fare forth, fulfilled and satisfied
Into the land of Ever-and Aye,
Over the hills and far away.
This poem presents many problems. The first quatrain (stanza of four lines) may puzzle a reader by the contradictory items in its list (which for some reason are in desperate disarray) but it seems to be saying that everything, good or bad, passes on. In the second quatrain, ken means “to know,” abscond means “to escape” or “hide from view,” and yesterday can mean “lately.” Thus, the meaning of the quatrain would seem to be that sooner or later we can separate ourselves from the past: without the watching moon knowing it, we will slip away. (Or, because the first quatrain begins with “since,” are we to believe that we will pass in the same way everything else does. If so, what does the moon have to do with this and how does it all work?) Further, since deem means “to think or believe,” the third quatrain seems to be telling us that all of this is of no importance to us because we shall follow our romantic dream. (There is a terrible metaphor here: we are told that the season, May, smiles dreams. And these are wanton (unrestrained and often sensual) dreams). And the last quatrain appears to tell us that, being now fulfilled, we can go on forever (fare forth . . . ever and aye), and forever is characterized as being a land of forever, which leads us to the hills, etc. And it’s not at all clear why we should fare forth in pride. Finally, if you look at the punctuation throughout, it becomes clear that he takes the refrain to mean “for eternity,” or “the end of things,” or something like that. This is clear because the things we despise (stanza one) go there, just as following our dream (stanza three) leads us there, and these disparate things are not likely to go to the same place.
This is a mediocre to awful poem, strained and awkward, at best. In contrast, Gay’s song, which was written over one hundred years earlier, is clear and straightforward, and the “refrain” joins with “stray”—the last word of the preceding line—to mean something like, “go on this voyage of adventure with me.” (And I can’t help thinking that Henley may have had Gay’s poem at the back of his mind.) Both poems are examples of the carpe diem theme, “seize the day” (live for the moment), which makes perfect sense when said by a Highwayman and the daughter of a fence, but I suspect that Henley wants it to have more serious meaning.
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.
It is important to remember that this poem was written during a two-year span in the hospital, so there is some (slight) justification for the patently egotistical chest-pounding, but despite that, it isn’t a very good poem. The stanzas are repetitive, each saying the same thing: “whatever evil threatens me, I am unafraid.” Nonetheless, the lines, “My head is bloody but unbowed,” and “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul,” readily stick in the mind. Many people probably justify it as being inspirational—though pompous and grandiloquent is more to the point—and I suspect it will always be popular: a four-stanza definition of what that word actually means.
Madam Life’s a Piece in Bloom
Madam Life’s a piece in bloom
Death goes dogging everywhere:
She’s the tenant of the room,
He’s the ruffian on the stair.
You shall see her as a friend,
You shall bilk him once or twice;
But he’ll trap you in the end,
And he’ll stick you for her price.
With his kneebones at your chest,
And his knuckles in your throat,
You would reason—plead—protest!
Clutching at her petticoat;
But she’s heard it all before,
Well she knows you’ve had your fun,
Gingerly she gains the door,
And your little job is done.
It’s hard to believe that this was written by the same poet who wrote the others. It is a satirical allegory. On the one hand, we see a man who has met with a prostitute, whose pimp or enforcer is waiting on the stairs. He has visited her before, but he hasn’t yet paid her price. Finally, the pimp throttles him, and despite all his protests, she leaves the room, and he is finished. On the other hand, she is Life personified, and the man has enjoyed life: finally, Death makes him pay the price for living, which is death—and no excuses or protests will save him. This is the primary meaning. It is a fine, witty, poem, skillfully handled and very clever.
Note One poetry website has various comments on what Madam Life . . . is about—mostly fantastic; and someone pointed out that a Madam is a woman who runs a house of prostitution. That is true, but it isn’t necessary at all, and it weakens the narrative. After all, she is-—must be—-the only woman in the story, and "Madam," by itself, is an address of respect. "Piece," of course, is a derogatory word for a woman—but not quite in the modern sense. People who think of poems as being like puzzles full of symbols, and who believe that their guesses-—whatever they may be—-are acceptable, are simply wrong. Poets have a particular meaning in mind when they write, and they choose their words with great care to express that for us. An intelligent response is based upon understanding what the poet is doing, and a poet who cannot express this clearly to those who have an adequate background is just not very good.