W E Henley - 1903

History
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W E Henley - 1903

As well as some of the most famous names from British history, the crypt of St Paul's is home to the burials and memorials of hundreds of others who aren't as instantly recognisable, but are perhaps better known though their works and deeds.

One memorial, past which hundreds of people walk every day, is to the poet W E Henley - a man with a great story and fascinating connections.

"I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul."

These two lines of poetry are Henley's most famous, taken from the poem, Invictus, known and loved around the world - a message of fortitude in the face of adversity, the title of which translates as 'unconquerable'.

Written in 1875 as Henley was recovering from tuberculosis which had meant the loss of a leg, the poem has stood the test of time and is still much revered. The poem is closely associated with Nelson Mandela, who would read it aloud to his fellow prisoners on Robben Island. Clint Eastwood would later make it into a film of the same name, starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman as Mandela.

And more recently the 'Invictus' name has been given to the sporting tournament for injured and recovering military personnel from across the world, spearheaded by HRH Prince Harry. 

An essayist, editor and critic of high-regard, Henley cut quite the figure in Victorian England and his legacy lives on in many ways.

Being a friend of the author Robert Louis Stevenson, Henley became the inspiration for the most famous ever literary pirate, Long John Silver, in Treasure Island. Silver, like Henley, only had one leg, and Henley was described by Stephenson's stepson as "...a great, glowing, massive-shouldered fellow with a big red beard and a crutch; jovial, astoundingly clever, and with a laugh that rolled like music; he had an unimaginable fire and vitality; he swept one off one's feet."

Through his friendship with another author, J M Barrie, Henley's daughter would also be forever immortalised in one of the most loved children's stories, Peter Pan. Five-year-old Margaret Henley would call Barrie her 'friendy-wendy', and the second part stuck, meaning the character Wendy Darling was born. Wendy had not been a recognised girl's name before that point and Barrie is credited with making it popular. Unfortunately Margaret would only live to the age of five.

A final 'celebrity' connection can be seen in the memorial in St Paul's crypt. If you look very closely at the bronze bust you can just make out the name 'A. Rodin'.

A committed Francophile, Henley had become a friend of the great French sculptor, Auguste Rodin, a friendship that would see the artist create a number of works to Henley after his death.

Having suffered many sicknesses form a young age, Henley was to die in 1903 at the age of 53.

Although he wrote much poetry it is Invictus, the final verse of which refers to the Gospel of Matthew, that remains probably his only known work. A biographer wrote: "By virtue of a single poem William Ernest Henley remains at once the most freely quoted and the most thoroughly neglected of Victorian lyrists."

Invictus

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 bludgeoning 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.

You can see Henley's memorial and memorials to hundreds of other well-known and less well-known figures on your visit to St Paul's.