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

By Jerome Hamilton Buckley | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4.
"INVICTUS." THE GRAMMAR OF ASSENT

STEVENSON knew nothing of the Henley who had lain, in the first Edinburgh months, helpless upon a hospital cot, doubtful as to the value of life itself. He could remember only a maimed Prometheus, scorning the decrees of angry gods. His description of the penny whistle and its effect on the ward attains an almost Henleyan grandiloquence:

Small the pipe; but O! do thou,
Peak-faced and suffering piper, blow therein
The dirge of heroes dead; and to these sick,
These dying, sound the triumph over death.
Beholdl each greatly breathes; each tastes a joy
Unknown before, in dying; for each knows
A hero dies with him -- though unfulfilled,
Yet conquering truly -- and not dies in vain.

So is pain cheered, death comforted; the house
Of sorrow smiles to listen. Once again --
O thou, Orpheus and Heracles, the bard
And the deliverer, touch the stops again!1

This poem is highly pertinent to any account of the Henley-Stevenson relationship. It depicts the piper as Louis wished to see him and as he himself desired to appear. And thereby it suggests the attitude towards pain of two youths who had each suffered greatly and whose common friendship was grounded in a personal experience, and a mutual defiance, of physical handicap. Critically, their tastes, their prejudices, their philosophies of living can only be measured against an incessant battle with tubercular disease. For neither was long free from some sort of bodily torment. Their war was never won; but while a shred of life remained, neither would admit it lost. In the South Seas, a month

____________________
1
Stevenson, Works, XVI, 122-23.

-56-

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