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

By Jerome Hamilton Buckley | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 14.
"SOME LATE LARK SINGING." LAST POEMS: 1889-1903

PAUL KRUGER'S ultimatum to the British agent at Pretoria set at defiance the "frantic boast" of the Jubilee orators. And long months of disastrous war tried a theoretical imperialism in a practical ordeal by fire. From retirement Henley saw falling on distant battlefields the political ideals for which he had campaigned and the bravest of the Young Men with whom he had made the Observer belligerent. Hysterically he wrote his songs For England's Sake in an effort to persuade himself and his countrymen of England's invincibility. But his enthusiasm rang hollow; and his true helplessness was of a piece with the desperate joy of London on Mafeking Day. Yet, whatever its poetic value, his doggerel indicated an awareness of the forces that were terminating an era of great endeavor and remarkable achievement. At its worst it was a far more vital utterance than the last pathetic cry of Wilde. It was designed to enspirit a bewildered but living nation; while the confessions of the vagrant Sebastian Melmoth served merely as epilogue to a dead "decadence."

The verses For England's Sake had then a significance in the fact that they revealed a late Henley still prepared to face the actuality of pain. The greater and more typical poetry of these last years represented the realist's final attempt to fit the exigencies of his time into a larger pattern. At Worthing on the Channel coast, where he now moved his home, Henley learned with consternation of the reverses in Africa. But above the din of battle, he heard the high-sounding sea; and he asked the meaning of its ceaseless ebb-and-flow. He saw the evil of society; and yet he believed in the incorruptibility of "the wonderful world." In moments of despair he wrote ballads of marching men. In long hours of calm he made lyrics of the natural procession,

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