This series of 28 poems plus an envoy describe, from the patient's point of view, a 20-month stay in an Edinburgh hospital in the 1870s. The narrator delineates--from the cold and dread of Enter Patient through the giddiness of "Discharged"--his reactions to hospital personnel (from doctors and nurses to scrub lady); to his fellow patients (from children to the elderly, during bad days and holidays), to visitors, and to death.

Because he stays for 20 months, we also witness his seesawing emotions about his own state of health. The epigraph from Balzac suggests that a person in bed and ill might become self-centered, so the narrator purposefully maintains a dispassionate tone. It is a tone so distinct yet distanced that Jerome H. Buckley (William Ernest Henley: A Study in the "Counter-Decadence" of the 'Nineties, New York: Octagon Books, 1971, c. 1945) compares the poems to steel engravings.


These poems--which Joseph M. Flora, in the Twayne biography of Henley (William Ernest Henley, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1970, p. 20) calls a sonnet sequence, even though not all are sonnets--were written between 1873 and 1875 while Henley was a patient at The Old Infirmary in Edinburgh. Having lost one leg at 16 to arthritic tuberculosis, Henley was determined to try anything to save his other leg. He left London and sought treatment in Edinburgh from Joseph Lister, whose theories of antiseptic surgery were still not universally accepted.

For Victorian audiences, especially readers of sonnets, the subject matter was shockingly unromantic, and the poems are surprisingly modern, even in their portraits of physicians and nurses. Although the sequence is a kind of pathography, Henley's tone is stubbornly impersonal, and we readers learn more about other patients', professionals', and even visitors' stories than we do about Henley's story.


The 1970 AMS edition is a reprint of the 1908 London edition.

Primary Source

William Ernest Henley, Poems, Vol. I



Place Published

New York



Page Count