“A late lark” and “Madam Life”

by Henley

These two Victorian poems reflecting on death could hardly be more different. In the first, the poet imagines his passing as a moment of fulfilment and calm release as a late lark sings in his heart. The second is a vision of carpe diem in its starkest and nastiest form: life is a prostitute at the transient height of her attraction, and death is her violent pimp, lurking on the stairs to take the money. It is taken for granted that readers will recognise the sordid brothel setting, a reminder that many Victorian gentlemen were not as prudish outside the drawing room as they were in it.

Remarkably, both are the work of one man, William Ernest Henley (1849 – 1902), best known for his poem “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”). Henley, a poet, critic and literary journalist, had a painful life because of a tubercular complaint that affected his bones and led to the amputation of a leg. He was a sometime friend of J M Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson: Henley’s Wikipedia biography quotes a letter to him from Stevenson telling him that he was part of the inspiration for Long John Silver in “Treasure Island”.

See the illustrated blog post here.

Margaritae sorori IM

A late lark twitters from the quiet skies:
And from the west,
Where the sun, his day’s work ended,
Lingers as in content,
There falls on the old, gray city
An influence luminous and serene,
A shining peace.

The smoke ascends
In a rosy-and-golden haze. The spires
Shine and are changed. In the valley
Shadows rise. The lark sings on. The sun,
Closing his benediction,
Sinks, and the darkening air
Thrills with a sense of the triumphing night—
Night with her train of stars
And her great gift of sleep.

So be my passing!
My task accomplish’d and the long day done,
My wages taken, and in my heart
Some late lark singing,
Let me be gather’d to the quiet west,
The sundown splendid and serene,

Madam Life’s a Piece in Bloom

Madam Life’s a piece in bloom
Death goes dogging everywhere:
She’s the tenant of the room,
He’s the ruffian on the stair.

You shall see her as a friend,
You shall bilk him once or twice;
But he’ll trap you in the end,
And he’ll stick you for her price.

With his kneebones at your chest,
And his knuckles in your throat,
You would reason — plead — protest!
Clutching at her petticoat;

But she’s heard it all before,
Well she knows you’ve had your fun,
Gingerly she gains the door,
And your little job is done.

More Poems by Henley

More poems by this author will be added shortly.