One of the many factors that excites me about limiting the majority of my research to a certain period in history is when it brings people of two different disciplines together that I already liked as separate entities, especially if one of those people is in the medical profession. Such is the case with William Ernest Henley, Victorian poet, and Sir Joseph Lister, who just so happens to be my personal favorite surgeon of the 1800s.
For those unacquainted with Lister, he is known for his antiseptic techniques in surgery in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Louis Pasteur’s articles inspired him to set out on his battle against bacteria and infection in an age when mortality rates in surgery were alarmingly high. His techniques, which utilized carbolic acid, were tedious, not to mention that Listerism was frowned upon by many other surgeons in its earlier days, who thought it all to be mere humbuggery. Many limbs and lives were saved thanks to the efforts of Lister. He was, however, a transitional figure — although he did rinse his hands in carbolic, he was not the militant hand-washer that Ignac Semmelweis was some decades before.
For William Ernest Henley, pain was an inescapable fact of life. He suffered from tuberculosis of the bone; his left leg was amputated at the age of twelve. By the time he was twenty-four, the possibility of amputation loomed over him again, this time in regard to his right foot. He had read of Lister in newspapers, and was desperate to avoid another amputation. He saw this controversial sepsis-fighting surgeon as his only hope. Even Lister was skeptical about this new case, warning him that he might have to resort to amputation, but in the end, Henley was able to keep his foot.
During his stay at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, he read voraciously, wrote like mad, and taught himself three languages, making up for the spotty education he received as a boy due to his poor health. It was also during this time that he wrote the collection of poems, In Hospital. For anyone interested in nineteenth-century medicine, and especially for anyone interested in Lister, the poems of In Hospital are true gems. It’s fascinating to get glimpses of life in the Royal Infirmary from the eyes of a long-time patient. A cozy experience it was not. He desolately describes it as a place “half-workhouse and half-jail.” But there is life in his fellow patients, ailing though they may be, as described in “Children: Private Ward” and “Romance”, which is about the sailor who eventually became his brother-in-law. Henley also creates some colorful depictions of the staff at the hospital, as in his two “Staff-Nurse” poems.
Even Lister makes several appearances in his poetry, the most notable of which is in “The Chief.” Henley’s admiration for Lister, not to mention his gratitude, is obvious in this work. Here are the last few lines quoted below:
His wise, rare smile is sweet with certainties,
And seems in all his patients to compel
Such love and faith as failure cannot quell;
We hold him for another Herakles,
Battling with custom, prejudice, disease,
As once the son of Zeus with Death and Hell.
Henley’s poetry is stylistically unique in that he was an early writer of free verse (obviously, this is not the case in “The Chief”). To my eyes, it gives much of his poetry an anachronistic look — some might say he was ahead of his time. I confess I’m usually not a fan of free verse, but I feel he pulls it off quite well, and when it comes to In Hospital, I’m primarily interested in what he is saying.
I might add that Henley is most known for his poem “Invictus.” I confess it isn’t one of my favorites, in spite of its popularity. I’m partial to the poems of In Hospital and Rhymes and Rhythms. And as for “The Chief”, I’m sure it made modest Lister blush to a prodigious degree.