Encourager of Others
The Monday Morning Sequel to Last Week’s Memo, “Eddie’s Song”
The world’s most widely recognized sculpture, The Thinker, would probably never have come into existence had Rodin not received encouragement from a poor Scottish lad named William Henley. The son of an obscure bookseller, William was afflicted with tuberculosis of the bone, a condition that caused him to have his left leg amputated at the knee when he was 19 years old. Five years later, he was told that the surgery had been unnecessary. “Sorry about that, William.”
But William Henley was not a whiner. During his years as an invalid in the dungeon-like infirmary of 1870’s Edinburgh, he wrote a number of marginal poems and submitted them to various magazines for publication. The editor of Cornhill magazine, Leslie Stephen, once went to the hospital to visit young William and brought along a fellow William’s age named Robert. “It was very sad to see him,” Robert wrote, “in a little room with two beds, and a couple of sick children in the other; Stephen and I sat on a couple of chairs and the poor fellow sat up in his bed, with his hair and beard all tangled, and talked as cheerfully as if he had been in a King’s Palace . . .”
No, William was not a whiner, for it was in that same dark hospital room that William met his future wife, Anna, when she came to visit her brother in a neighboring bed. His new buddy Robert came back to visit William often and later wrote of him, “He is a great man; he commands a larger atmosphere… It has been said that his presence could be felt in a room you entered blindfolded.” Upon his release from the hospital at the age of 26, William was described as, “a large and boisterous man, wild haired and red-bearded. Lively, impulsive, enthusiastic, vigorous, and full of vehement tastes and distastes.” Indeed, it was these “vehement tastes and distates” that earned William his reputation as a writer for publications such as London, Saturday Review, and Vanity Fair. By the age of 31, William had become a highly regarded critic at the Magazine of Art, “generous in his promotion and encouragement of unknown talents and fierce in his attacks on unmerited reputations.”
As a critic, William not only drew attention on the genius of Rodin, but was instrumental in helping launch the careers of Rudyard Kipling (Jungle Book,) J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan,) George Bernard Shaw (Pygmalion,) Thomas Hardy (Far From the Madding Cowd,) H.G. Wells (The Time Machine,) and William Butler Yeats, who once wrote of him, “I disagreed with him about almost everything, but I admired him beyond words.”
A bronze bust of William Henley, made by Rodin, remains in Saint Paul’s Cathedral to this day.
But the honor that was to immortalize William Henley forever was bestowed upon him by his old hospital companion, Robert, who saw something “boisterous and piratic” in Henley and shaped it into Long John Silver, the one-legged sea cook of Treasure Island. Yes, Robert’s middle name was Louis. And his last name was Stevenson.
Roy H. Williams