W. E. Henley and Journalism


IN the preface to William Ernest Henley’s collected poems, published some years ago, this passage occurs : “ After spending the better part of my life in the pursuit of poetry, I found myself (about 1877) so utterly unmarketable that I had to confess myself beaten in art, and to addict myself to journalism for the next ten years.” There is nothing in this way of putting the case which would strike most people as odd. They would cheerfully admit that a man pursues art and becomes addicted to journalism ; as if one were an ideal and the other a bad habit. Why, and how, it may be proper to inquire, does success in journalism differ from success in the literary art?


Journalism, let us say, for the sake of having a definition, is a record of or commentary upon passing events and conditions of life. In its recording function it differs clearly enough from literature. It has only to present an accurate and bare chronicle of events: not an altogether easy task, it is true. Provincial journalists find it hard to keep clear of the language of the street on the one hand, and the language of what they would call “ the forum ” on the other. What has gone far toward depriving an important public officer of his dignity is his facility in exaggerating the familiarities of the vernacular and in burlesquing the graces of literature. “ Newspaper English ” has come to mean all that is slovenly, wooden, facetious, or bombastic in written speech. It is not for nothing that fact becomes “ story ” in the jargon of the newspaper office.

But it is the further business of journalism to hazard an interpretation of the facts which it has recorded. The great public wishes to know not only what is going on, but what to think of it. Now a strictly journalistic comment upon any given event or situation is essentially impersonal and conventional. At most it represents the opinion of a quorum, the expression of a policy rather than of a personality. Prophets are notoriously inefficient in the editorial chair. Herein lies the fundamental difference between journalism and literature; one is normally impersonal, the other necessarily personal. The moment personality begins to shine through an “ article,” that article is suggesting its right to be considered as literature. And the moment an effective personality succeeds in expressing itself, and the world through itself, a new practitioner in art has arisen. There is no reason why a journalist should aim for this sort of escape from his calling. He may have strength to realize that his impersonality is more effective than his personality; that as a reporter or a leader-writer he is really a person of more consequence than he could be as a solitary climber of the Parnassian slopes. And he has in “ the higher journalism ” a legitimate goal which he may, with diligence, hope to reach.

It is becoming, to be sure, less and less easy to make any mechanical division between the lower and the higher journalism. There is little or no difference, except in length, between the best articles in such journals as the London Times or the New York Evening Post, and most articles in the monthly and quarterly periodicals. And the tendency toward assimilation has worked both ways. In the popular American magazines the essay gave way some time since to the “ special article; ” a fact which indicates pretty clearly that they have ceased to be “literary repositories,” as the old phrase was, and have become journals. Recognizing this fact, the dailies and weeklies have not failed to apply the shoe to the other foot by publishing weekly and monthly “ magazine numbers.” From all this mixing of methods it may well happen that we find ourselves puzzled to gauge the merit of a given piece of writing. Is it a sketch, an article, or an essay ? Does it illuminate or merely instruct ? Does it belong to the lower journalism, to the higher journalism, or to literature ?


Mr. Kipling would probably make an end of the question by asserting that there is no question. Mr. Kipling came out of journalism by the easiest door, — the only door open to a born reporter. He might have succeeded in the higher journalism, for his opinions of men and things are always forcible, if not sound; but he seems to have had no taste for expressing his opinions except by way of fiction and verse. Mr. Kipling’s method and spirit, however, are essentially journalistic. He does not hesitate to express his contempt for theories of literary art, and belongs, in short, to that sturdy class of inspired amateur which startles every generation in turn, to be forgotten in the next. The history of literature does, at least, indicate that the writer who is not in some measure impressed with his responsibility to law as well as to his own instinct can hardly hope to have his usefulness survive the moment. Mr. Kipling himself, artist though he is in his own field, has in the end lost from his inability to see life roundly as well as sharply. His frequent feats in the rôle of reporter (as shown for example in his treatment of the Gloucester fishermen) have proved that not even in his case can acuteness quite take the place of thoroughness ; and that the rapid notes of an observer inevitably fail of the effect achieved by the broad interpretations of an artist.


Mr. Henley made an entrance, or, as he suggests, a descent, to journalism by way of the literary art. He had devoted his best powers to “ the pursuit of poetry,” and had failed to gain the sort of pocketable recognition which comes to not more than two or three writers of verse in a generation. It is hardly necessary to suggest to those who know his work at all that he did not descend beneath the upper levels of journalism. As editor, for example, of the Centenary Burns, his production was that of a man of letters rather than of a journalist; and in reality he never quite gave up his pursuit of the poetic art. Some of his verses have from their vigor and melodiousness and ingenuousness become widely known ; though it is probably their daring rather than any of these qualities which has thus far made them talked of. Mr. Henley early showed an inclination to mitigate the severities of ordinary usage in the employment of rhythm and rhyme. His verse never became quite formless, but it did sometimes become diffuse and prosaic. “ There is something revolutionary,” asserts Mr. Arthur Symons enthusiastically, “ in all Mr. Henley’s work; the very titles, the very existence of his poems, may be taken as a sort of manifesto on behalf of what is surely a somewhat new art, the art of modernity in verse. To be modern in poetry, to represent really one’s self and one’s surroundings, the world as it is to-day, to be modern and yet poetical is, perhaps, the most difficult, as it is certainly the most interesting, of all artistic achievements.” Whatever truth there may be in this postulate, one does not see that it applies particularly well to Mr. Henley’s work, at least to the best of it. Attempts have been making since the memory of man to extend the range of poetry, but Apollo has not hitherto consented to figure as the india-rubber man. True poetry still insists upon dealing with the same old inexhaustible human motives; and Mr. Henley’s best poetry is concerned with two of the most elemental of them : the eager cherishing of joy and the stalwart endurance of pain. He was, more than any other modern poet in English, the poet of youth and spring, the poet of courage and hardihood. Impulse and combativeness are his themes, not self-restraint or resignation. He could compose with equal fervor a song like this : —

“ It was a bowl of roses :
There in the light they lay,
Languishing, glorying, glowing
Their life away.
“ And the soul of them rose like a presence, Into me crept and grew
And filled me with something — some one O, was it you ? ”

And a ringing strain like this : —

“ 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 tins 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.”

Few persons, however conventionally pious, can read these fine and now. famous lines without a certain leap of the heart. They have, indeed, just that note of truculence which rings through any effective call to arms. Henley’s warlyrics are probably less known in this country than Mr. Kipling’s, though they are much better poetry and equally spirited verse: —

“But to drowse with the fen-behind and the fog before,
Where the rain-rot spreads, and a tame sea mumbles the shore,
Not to adventure, none to fight, no right and no wrong,
Sons of the sword heart-sick for a stave of your sire’s old song —
O you envy the blessed dead that can live no more ! ”

Mr, Henley produced another sort of verse than this, which, as it was odd, attracted much attention. When Mr. Symons speaks of his “ modernity ” he apparently has in mind less the strong simple lyrics from which we have quoted than the series of cockney quatorzains which Henley called London Types, and the group of songs inspired by an experience in a city hospital. All of the hospital poems appear to me to have been conceived in the journalistic spirit. They sketch scenes, they tell stories, they offer data ; and most of them are cast in unrhymed, irregular metres not essential, let us hope, to the expression of modernity. Here is a stanza from a number called Casualty : —

“ As with varnish red and glistening
Dripped his hair; his feet looked rigid;
Raised, he settled stiffly sideways :
You could see his hurts were spinal.”

It must require, one supposes, some curious modernity of taste to appreciate this as poetry: from a more ancient point of view it is a versified report, nothing more. It should be said that this is an extreme instance. Much of the poet’s descriptive verse is of great brilliancy, as in this sonnet, which does not appear in the London Types, though it is called In the Dials ; —

“To Garryowen upon an organ ground
Two girls are jigging. Riotously they trip,
With eyes aflame, quick bosoms, hand on hip,
As in the tumult of a witches round.
Youngsters and youngsters round them prance and bound,
Two solemn babes twirl ponderously and skip.
The artist’s teeth gleam from his bearded lip,
High from the kennels howls a tortured hound.
The music reels and hurtles, and the night
Is full of stinks and cries; a naphtha light
Flares from a barrow ; battered and obtused
With vices, wrinkles, life and work and rags,
Each with her inch of clay, two loitering hags
Look on, dispassionate, critical, half ’mused.”

This is the “ nervous impressionist realism ” for which the Quarterly Review praised Mr. Henley some years ago. It is certainly brilliant, vivid, everything but beautiful; a study, in short, and not a work of art at all in the strict sense. We must go back to those pure lyrics of love and of defiance to feel the power of Mr. Henley’s art.


He never professed the pursuit of prose as an art; indeed, he did not, so far as we can learn, attempt any sort of creative prose. He was an honest and effective, but not especially sound critic ; here again his “ nervous impressionism ” of method gives often the effect of force without finality. He could tell the truth as he knew it, but there were few aspects of truth of which his knowledge was passionate enough to develop a really noble form of utterance. There is plenty of vigor in his judgments, but not always the poise and dignity which could give them authority. Talk of the famous letter to the Pall Mall Magazine on Balfour’s Stevenson has not yet ceased to reverberate in literary journals. It was altogether characteristic of Henley that he should have made an admirable point with such an appearance of personal irritation as to confuse the issue in the minds of most of his readers : " I take a view of Stevenson which declines to be concerned with this Seraph in Chocolate, this barley-sugar effigy of a real man. . . . For ourselves, let us live and die uninsulted, as we lived and died before his books began to sell and his personality was a marketable thing.” Naturally a public which did not know Mr. Henley considered this a treasonable utterance from a friend of the dead Stevenson’s ; they took for envy and malice what was really the expression of a generous nature. To the memory of Stevenson, as well as to the world, Balfour’s method of canonization was, in Henley’s opinion, an insult; and he undoubtedly considered the catalogue of Stevenson’s failings, which he proceeded to give, a vindication of his friend. They proved that he had been a man eager for life, and not an angelic invalid ; they were a part, at all events, of the evidence as to what kind of man Stevenson really was. Henley was a humanist, not a moralist, and it was hard for him to be patient with the eligible hypocrisies of Anglo-Saxon convention : —

“ A sigh sent wrong,
A kiss that goes astray,
A sorrow the years end long —
So they say.
“ So let it be —
Come the sorrow, the kiss, the sigh!
They are life, dear life, all three,
And we die.”

A similar cry was raised over Henley’s perfectly frank treatment of Burns, in the Introduction and Notes of the Centenary Edition. The world had chosen, in spite of all the evidence, to surround the memory of Burns with a golden aureole of optimism. Mr. Henley calls attention to the fact that he was not only an inspired singer, but, on occasion, a lewd rustic and a cad. It had been the fashion to treat him as a magnanimous nature continually suffering from a sense of his carnal frailty. Mr. Henley shows that, like most sentimental persons, he was commonly indifferent to questions which had nothing to do with his own comfort. Such services as this Mr. Henley performed for English criticism ; and the character of the enemies they made for him constitutes perhaps their best praise.


Apart from these performances, no prose of his is more interesting than the memoir of his friend G. W. Steevens, which has been prefixed to an American collection of that brilliant writer’s best work. Journalism cannot conceivably have seemed a forlorn hope to Steevens ; it offered precisely the means by which he could best express his absorbing interest in the things he saw. Kipling is a journalist who rose to literature, Henley a literary man who descended to journalism; Steevens was neither ; he was born to journalism, and in journalism fulfilled his nature, apparently free from the unsettling desire to fulfill something else. He wreaked himself upon the moment, and was satisfied to be a part of life. It is not easy to bring into definition the quality in his work which we recognize as journalistic. Perhaps it was his indifference to the amenities of style, his frank preoccupation with the thing he had seen and was describing or interpreting. We cannot fancy him wearying over the choice of an epithet or the turn of a phrase. So much the better for him as a journalist; but an artist has to be all the time meeting little issues, and work which is not made up of a series of victories is little likely to stand; it may attain the rank either of a useful treatise, or of an interesting atelier study, but it will not be a work of art.

There are in every generation writers like Mr. Symons who are troubled lest the work of the moment be not “modern ” enough, and who are ready to discover “ revolution ” and “ modernity ” in any utterance which succeeds in being not illiterately odd. I for one fail to find in Mr. Henley, except in his descriptive verse, which is the essence of clever journalism, anything to stare at. I do not especially care to find anything of the sort. He was a strong, honest, full-blooded man, a good lover and a good hater, and singer of the best English lyrics during half a generation.

H. W. Boynton.