William Ernest Henley; a Study in the "Counter-Decadence" of the 'Nineties

By Jerome Hamilton Buckley | Go to book overview

PREFACE

BY some tacit agreement literary historians of the Victorian period have isolated a picturesque movement dominated by the hero-villain Oscar Wilde and known as the "decadence" of the "yellow 'nineties." The convenience of such a label has led many a reader virtually to ignore the truly vital writing of the English fin de siècle. For if there was in the 'nineties a "decadent" coterie, there was also a far more vigorous "counter-decadent" group. If there were the Wildean aesthetes, there were also the Young Men of William Ernest Henley. And it was in the theory and practice of the latter that the best in Edwardian letters was to take root.

This book attempts the first general criticism of Henley's life and work. Neither of the two biographers who have outlined his career has sought to evaluate his creative talent or to explain his profound influence on late Victorian literature. Leslie Cope Cornford has conjured up a semimythical literary giant; and Kennedy Williamson has sentimentalized a long struggle against debt and disease. In an effort to remedy the deficiency, I have deliberately slighted anecdote and personal melodrama, in order to relate Henley to a broader social, aesthetic, and intellectual background.

Apart from the many sources I have acknowledged in the progress of this study, I am deeply indebted to Mrs. Maude Henley and the Macmillan Company of London for permission to draw liberally upon Henley's original works; to Charles Scribner's Sons for American authorization to use the same material and for special permission to quote from the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson and from The Colvins and Their Friends by E. V. Lucas ; to the Macmillan Company of New York for several passages from the Autobiography of William Butler Yeats ; and to the Yale University Press for excerpts from C. Archer monograph, William Archer. The frontispiece has been reproduced from Sir William

-vii-

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