Captain Obvious' Guide to: William E Henley

As a writer (I can call myself that, because I write on this blog, and there's nothing you can do about it) I find that studying at the feet of masters helps shape my own literary voice. To this end, I'm an avid reader of most anything: from Classics to more breezy, light-weight articles, with a few exceptions.

not for all the anime in Japan. whatiboughttoday

Today, I shall be profiling a poem by on of the original masters, William E Henley, who I'm sure you're familiar with from "Invictus", popularized by the 2009 film of the same name.While I'm yet to watch the film myself, I'm sure hearing the poem read out by Morgan Freeman is a great introduction to possibly the most inspirational thing in recent times, short of a training montage in which the trainer climbs out of the TV to whip you into shape while "Eye of the Tiger" plays.

Everybody now, push ups! fascinationwithfear

While "Invictus' does resonate with me, my subject for today will be a one in an entirely different vein. If the poem has a name, I'm unaware, the best I know it as is "To W.A.".

Or ever the knightly years were gone
With the old world to the grave,
I was a King in Babylon
And you were a Christian Slave.

Fledgling intellectual analysis coming through, bear with me: the first thing I gather here is that the poem is set in a ways back in history (clarifications of exact timeline are welcome in the comments) during the days when Christians were oppressed peoples enslaved to Babylon.

back when people dressed like this.

We have an admitted King of Babylon and a Christian slave at his mercy since, who's going to diss the King?

I saw, I took, I cast you by,
I bent and broke your pride.
You loved me well, or I heard them lie,
But your longing was denied.
Surely I knew that by and by
You cursed your gods and died.

The classic tale, King sets his eye on a powerless Slave and seduces her (I'm inferring, go with it) using her for his own selfish ends. Meanwhile, the Slave falls for the King, becoming so enamoured with him that after he's quite done using her, she realises what happened, and that she can never truly have the King. Heartbroken, she "curses her gods" and dies. Ain't that always the way?

Don't do it, girl. cheezburger

 The poor Girl now dead, King Doucherocket commissions a grave for her then promptly forgets she ever existed as seen in the next verse:

And a myriad suns have set and shone
Since then upon the grave
Decreed by the King in Babylon
To her that had been his Slave.

 Real winner, this King. An indeterminate amount of time passes since the tragic passing of the heartbroken girl, presumably while the King buys up bulk cases of Ye Olde Axe Body Spray and gets a spray tan.

Totally, bro. quickmeme

This is where it gets really awesome really fast:

The pride I trampled is now my scathe,
For it tramples me again.
The old resentment lasts like death,
For you love, yet you refrain.
I break my heart on your hard unfaith,
And I break my heart in vain.
 Oh, William. Big Willey. H-man. A fine writer, indeed you were. In just one verse, the King goes from repulsive character to human haunted by his misdeeds. I'm a bit fuzzy on the exact literal meaning of this bit but what I gather is the King realises the Slave truly loved him, and begins to regret his treatment of her, perhaps having sought this sort of love and not found it?

Must..resist... mobilclubs

The next verse's interpretation depends on where you are in life: you're either celebrating the King's anguish or genuinely empathizing with his regret.

Yet not for an hour do I wish undone
The deed beyond the grave,
When I was a King in Babylon
And you were a Virgin Slave.

 The concept of doing something you regret, and wishing for anything that you could take it back is one thing, but the finality of knowing the one you wronged is long dead and you cannot atone is a different kettle if fish. Way to make me think grow-up thoughts Henley. Right in the feels, man!

Right. In. The. Feels. threadless

There you have it. Henley paints a master portrait of a character that starts out despicable then runs the course through to sympathetic. Mostly because in my head, he's in his late 90s looking back on his life with regret for so deeply wounding another human being. And you KNOW there's nothing sadder than a sad old guy.

Except this. This is worse. memecenter

Because being pseudo-intellectual is a thing that happens, it is customary for me to infer an alternate meaning that is connected (tenuously at best) to the poem:

We, modern society, are the King of Babylon and the Earth is the Christian Slave. Stay with me here, modern society consistently pollutes, contaminates and violates Mother Earth in ways that would be applauded if the consequences weren't so heinous. The last paragraph is the regret that future generations will have to contend with as the human race wishes we had worked harder to preserve our resources. SURPRISE GREEN ATTACK!

An inconvenient truth. ...get it? Ok. anonymousartofrevolution

That, Ladies and Gents is my interpretation of to W.A. One final theory: since poets of the day would address their works so, referring to an actual individual (Edgar Allan Poe's "To M.L.S." referring to an actual individual, Marie Louise Shew) it is entirely possible that Henley screwed over someone with the initials W.A. or confided in W.A of his indiscretion. Plot Twist!
Thank you, M. Night ShymaDestroyTheAvatarFranchise. io9

 There you have it: the beginners guide to an amazing Henley poem. Until next time, 'tis I, Captain Obvious, signing out.

via deartrolls, a most excellent tumblr that I applaud.


  1. Replies
    1. Hello highly intelligent and extremely attractive person (only highly intelligent and extremely attractive people read this blog). Glad you liked it. :)