William Ernest Henley
|Born||23 August 1849|
|Died||11 July 1903 (aged 53)|
|Occupation||Poet, critic, and editor|
|Education||The Crypt School, Gloucester. St. Andrews University, Saint Andrews, Scotland.|
|Spouse||Hannah Johnson Boyle|
William Ernest Henley (23 August 1849 – 11 July 1903) was an influential English poet, critic and editor of the late Victorian era in England. Though he wrote several books of poetry, Henley is remembered most often for his 1875 poem "Invictus", a piece which recurs in popular awareness (e.g., see the 2009 Clint Eastwood film, Invictus). A fixture in literary circles, the one-legged Henley was also the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's character Long John Silver (Treasure Island, 1883), while his young daughter Margaret inspired J.M. Barrie's choice of the name Wendy for the heroine of his play Peter Pan (1904).
Early life and education
Henley was born in Gloucester on August 23, 1849, to mother, Mary Morgan, a descendent of poet and critic Joseph Warton, and father, William, a bookseller and stationer. William Ernest was the oldest of six children, five sons and a daughter; his father died in 1868, and was survived by his wife and young children.
Henley was a pupil at the Crypt School, Gloucester, between 1861 and 1867. A commission had recently attempted to revive the school by securing as headmaster the brilliant and academically distinguished Thomas Edward Brown (1830–1897). Though Brown's tenure was relatively brief (c. 1857–63), he was a "revelation" to Henley because the poet was "a man of genius – the first I'd ever seen". After carrying on a lifelong friendship with his former headmaster, Henley penned an admiring obituary for Brown in the New Review (December 1897): "He was singularly kind to me at a moment when I needed kindness even more than I needed encouragement".:31 Later in 1893 Henley also received his degree in LLD from the University of Saint Andrews; however, two years later Henley failed to secure the position of Professor of English literature at the University of Edinburgh.
From the age of 12, Henley suffered from tuberculosis of the bone that resulted in the amputation of his left leg below the knee in 1868–69.:35 The early years of Henley's life were punctuated by periods of extreme pain due to the draining of his tuberculosis abscesses. However, Henley's younger brother Joseph recalled how after draining his joints the young Henley would "Hop about the room, laughing loudly and playing with zest to pretend he was beyond the reach of pain". According to Robert Louis Stevenson's letters, the idea for the character of Long John Silver was inspired by Stevenson's real-life friend Henley. In a letter to Henley after the publication of Treasure Island (1883), Stevenson wrote, "I will now make a confession: It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver ... the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you." Stevenson's stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, described Henley as "... a great, glowing, massive-shouldered fellow with a big red beard and a crutch; jovial, astoundingly clever, and with a laugh that rolled like music; he had an unimaginable fire and vitality; he swept one off one's feet."
Frequent illness often kept Henley from school, although the misfortunes of his father's business may also have contributed. In 1867, Henley passed the Oxford Local Schools Examination. Soon after passing the examination, Henley moved to London and attempted to establish himself as a journalist.:35 His work over the next eight years was interrupted by long stays in hospitals, because his right foot had also become diseased.:129 Henley contested the diagnosis that a second amputation was the only means to save his life, seeking treatment from the pioneering late 19th-century surgeon Joseph Lister at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, commencing in August 1873.:129 Henley spent three years in hospital (1873–75), during which he was visited by Leslie Stephen and Robert Louis Stevenson and wrote and published the poems collected as In Hospital.:135
Throughout his life, the disconnect between Henley's physical appearance and his mental and creative capacities struck acquaintances in completely opposite, but equally forceful ways. Recalling his old friend, Sidney Low commented, "... to me he was the startling image of Pan come to earth and clothed – the great god Pan...with halting foot and flaming shaggy hair, and arms and shoulders huge and threatening, like those of some Faun or Satyr of the ancient woods, and the brow and eyes of the Olympians." After hearing of Henley's death on 13 July 1903, the author Wilfrid Scawen Blunt recorded his physical and ideological repugnance to the late poet and editor in his diary, "He has the bodily horror of the dwarf, with the dwarf's huge bust and head and shrunken nether limbs, and he has also the dwarf malignity of tongue and defiant attitude towards the world at large. Moreover, I am quite out of sympathy with Henley's deification of brute strength and courage, things I wholly despise."
Henley married Hannah (Anna) Johnson Boyle (1855 – 5 February 1925) on 22 January 1878. Born in Stirling, she was the youngest daughter of Edward Boyle, a mechanical engineer from Edinburgh, and his wife, Mary Ann née Mackie. In the 1891 Scotland Census, William and Anna are recorded as living with their two-year old daughter, Margaret Emma Henley (born 4 September 1888), at 11 Howard Place, in Edinburgh.
Margaret was a sickly child, and became immortalized by J. M. Barrie in his children's classic, Peter Pan. Unable to speak clearly, young Margaret had called her friend Barrie her "fwendy-wendy", resulting in the use of the name "Wendy" for a feminine character in the book. Margaret did not survive long enough to read the book; she died on 11 February 1894 at the age of five and was buried at the country estate of her father's friend, Harry Cockayne Cust, in Cockayne Hatley, Bedfordshire.
After Robert Louis Stevenson received a letter from Henley labelled "Private and Confidential" and dated 9 March 1888, in which the latter accused Stevenson's new wife Fanny of plagiarizing his cousin Katherine de Mattos' writing in the story story "The Nixie," the two men ended their friendship, though a correspondence of sorts did resume later after their mutual friends intervened.
Henley died of tuberculosis in 1903 at the age of 53 at his home in Woking, Surrey; after cremation at the local crematorium his ashes were interred in his daughter's grave in the churchyard at Cockayne Hatley in Bedfordshire.At the time of his death Henley's personal wealth was valued at £840. His widow, Anna, moved to 213 West Campbell-St, Glasgow, where she lived until her death.
As Andrzej Diniejko notes, Henley and the "Henley Regatta" (the name by which his followers were humorously referred) "promoted realism and opposed Decadence" through their own works, and, in Henley's case, "through the works... he published in the journals he edited." Henley published many poems in different collections including In Hospital (written between 1873 and 1875) and A Book of Verses, published in 1891. He is remembered most for his 1875 poem "Invictus", one of his "hospital poems" that were composed during his isolation as a consequence of early, life-threatening battles with tuberculosis; this set of works, one of several types and themes he engaged during his career, are said to have developed the artistic motif of the "poet as a patient" and to have anticipated modern poetry "not only in form, as experiments in free verse containing abrasive narrative shifts and internal monologue, but also in subject matter."
Forming the subject matter of the "hospital poems" were often Henley's observations of the plights of the patients in the hospital beds around him. Specifically the poem "Suicide" depicts not only the deepest depths of the human emotions, but also the horrid conditions of the working class Victorian poor in England. As Henley observed firsthand, the stress of poverty and the vice of addiction pushed a man to the brink of human endurance. In part, the poem reads:
Lack of work and lack of victuals,
A debauch of smuggled whisky,
And his children in the workhouse
Made the world so black a riddle
That he plunged for a solution;
And, although his knife was edgeless,
He was sinking fast towards one,
When they came, and found, and saved him.
After his recovery, Henley began by earning his living as a journalist and publisher. The sum total of Henley's professional and artistic efforts is said to have made him an influential voice in late Victorian England, perhaps with a role as central in his time as that of Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century. As an editor of a series of literary magazines and journals, Henley was empowered to choose each issue's contributors, as well as to offer his own essays, criticism, and poetic works; like Johnson, he said to have "exerted a considerable influence on the literary culture of his time."
For a short period in 1877–78, Henley was hired to edit The London Magazine, "which was a society paper", and "a journal of a type more usual in Paris than London, written for the sake of its contributors rather than of the public." In addition to his inviting its articles and editing all content, Henley anonymously contributed tens of poems to the journal, some of which have been termed "brilliant" (later published in a compilation by Gleeson White).
In 1889, Henley became editor of the Scots Observer, an Edinburgh journal of the arts and current events. After its headquarters were transferred to London in 1891, it became the National Observer and remained under Henley's editorship until 1893. The paper had almost as many writers as readers, as Henley said, and its fame was confined mainly to the literary class, but it was a lively and influential contributor to the literary life of its era. Serving under Henley as his assistant editor, "right-hand-man", and close friend was Charles Whibley. The journal's outlook was conservative and often sympathetic to the growing imperialism of its time. Among other services to literature, it published Rudyard Kipling's Barrack-Room Ballads (1890–92).
Henley died of tuberculosis in 1903 at the age of 53 at his home in Woking; after cremation at the local crematorium his ashes were interred in his daughter's grave in the churchyard at Cockayne Hatley in Bedfordshire.(subscription or UK public library membership required) At the time of his death Henley's personal wealth was valued at £840.
During his lifetime Henley had become fairly well known as a poet. His poetry had even made its way to the United States, inspiring several different contributors from across the country to pen articles about him. In 1889 the Chicago Daily Tribune ran an article about the promise that Henley showed in the field of poetry. After Henley's death in 1903 an acquaintance in Boston wrote a piece about her impression of Henley, saying of him, "There was in him something more than the patient resignation of the religious sufferer, who had bowed himself to the uses of adversity. Deep in his nature lay an inner well of cheerfulness, and a spontaneous joy of living, that nothing could drain dry, though it dwindled sadly after the crowning affliction of his little daughter's death." Henley was known as a man of inner resolve and character that transferred into his works, but also made an impression on his peers and friends. The loss of his daughter was a deeply traumatizing event in Henley's life but did not truly dampen his outlook on life as a whole.
While it has been observed that Henley's poetry "almost fell into undeserved oblivion," the appearance of "Invictus" as a continuing popular reference and the renewed availability of his work, through online databases and archives have meant that Henley's significant influence on culture and literary perspectives in the late-Victorian period is not forgotten.
In the late 20th-early 21st Centuries, Henley's most well-known poem "Invictus" has been cited a number of times in post-event statements by Libertarian and Ethno-Nationalist revolutionaries who have engaged in violent politically motivated public acts, as an explanation/justification for their actions, including Timothy McVeigh, an American citizen who attacked the Government of the United States with a bombing attack in 1995, and Brenton Tarrant, an Australian who committed a massacre at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on 15 March 2019.
- The London, 1877–78, "a society paper" Henley edited for this short period, and to which he contributed "a brilliant series of… poems" which were only later attributed publicly to him in a published compilation from Gleeson White (see below).
- In 1890, Henley published Views and Reviews, a volume of notable criticisms, which he described as "less a book than a mosaic of scraps and shreds recovered from the shot rubbish of some fourteen years of journalism". The criticisms, covering a wide range of authors (all English or French save Heinrich Heine and Leo Tolstoy) were remarkable for their insight. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that he had not received the same thrill of poetry so intimate and so deep since George Meredith's "Joy of Earth" and "Love in the Valley": "I did not guess you were so great a magician. These are new tunes; this is an undertone of the true Apollo. These are not verse; they are poetry." In 1895, Henley's poem, "Macaire," was published in a volume with the other plays.
- With John Stephen Farmer, Henley edited a seven volume dictionary of Slang and its analogues (1890-1904).
- The poems of In Hospital are noteworthy as some of the earliest free verse written in England. Arguably Henley's best-remembered work is the poem "Invictus", written in 1875. It is said that this was written as a demonstration of his resilience following the amputation of his foot due to tubercular infection.
- In Ballades and Rondeaus, Chants Royal, Sestinas, Villanelles, &c… (1888), compiled by Gleeson White, including 30 of Henley's works, a "selection of poems in old French forms." The poems were mostly produced by Henley while editing The London in 1877–78, but also included a few works unpublished or from other sources (Belgravia, Magazine of Art); appearing were a dozen of his ballads, including "Of Dead Actors" and "Of the Nothingness of Things," his rondels "Four Variations" and "The Ways of Death," ten of his Sicilian octaves including "My Love to Me" and "If I were King," a triolet by the same name, three villanelles including "Where's the Use of Sighing," and a pair of burlesques.
- Editing Slang and its analogues (1890-1904) inspired Henley's two translations of ballades by François Villon into thieves' slang.
- In 1892, Henley published a second volume of poetry, named after the first poem, "The Song of the Sword" but later re-titled London Voluntaries after another section in the second edition (1893).
- Hawthorn and Lavender, with Other Verses (1901), a collection entirely of Henley's, with the title major work, and 16 additional poems, including a dedication to his wife (and epilogue, both penned in Worthing), the collection is composed of 4 sections; the first, the title piece "Hawthorn and Lavender" in 50 parts over 65 pages. The second section is of 13 short poems, called "London Types," including examples from "Bus-Driver" to "Beefeater" to "Barmaid." The third section contains "Three Prologues" associated with theatrical works that Henley supported, including "Beau Austin" (by Henley and Robert Louis Stevenson, that played at Haymarket Theatre in late 1890), "Richard Savage" (by J. M. Barrie and H. B. Marriott Watson that played at Criterion Theatre in spring 1891, and "Admiral Guinea" (by again by Henley and Stevenson, that played at Avenue Theatre in late 1897). The fourth and final section contains 5 pieces, mostly shorter, and mostly pieces "In Memoriam."
- During 1892, Henley also published three plays written with Stevenson: Beau Austin, Deacon Brodie, about a corrupt Scottish deacon turned housebreaker, and Admiral Guinea. Deacon Brodie was produced in Edinburgh in 1884 and later in London. Herbert Beerbohm Tree produced Beau Austin at the Haymarket on 3 November 1890.
In art and popular culture
George Butterworth set four of Henley's poems to music in his 1912 song cycle Love Blows As the Wind Blows. Henley's poem, "Pro Rege Nostro", became popular during the First World War as a piece of patriotic verse, containing the following refrain
What have I done for you, England, my England? What is there I would not do, England my own?
The same poem and its sentiments have since been parodied by those unhappy with the jingoism they feel it expresses or the propagandistic use to which it was put during WWI to inspire patriotism and sacrifice in the British public and young men heading off to war. The poem is referenced in the title, "England, My England", a short story by D. H. Lawrence, and also in England, Their England, a satiric novel by A. G. Macdonell about 1920s English society.
Nelson Mandela recited the poem "Invictus" to other prisoners incarcerated alongside him at Robben Island, some believe because it expressed in its message of self-mastery Mandela's own Victorian ethic. This historical event was captured in fictional form in the Clint Eastwood film Invictus (2009), wherein the poem is referenced several times. In that fictionalized account, the poem becomes a central inspirational gift from actor Morgan Freeman's Mandela to Matt Damon's Springbok rugby team captain Francois Pienaar, on the eve of the underdog Springboks' victory in the post-apartheid 1995 Rugby World Cup held in South Africa.
In Chapter Two of her first volume of autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1869), Maya Angelou writes in passing that she "enjoyed and respected" Henley's works among others such as Poe's and Kipling's, but had no "loyal passion" for them.
Joe Orton, English playwright of the 1960s, based the title and theme of his breakthrough play The Ruffian on the Stair, which was broadcast on BBC radio in 1964, on the opening lines of Henley's poem Madame 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.
- Carol Rumens, 2010, "Poem of the week: Waiting by W.E. Henley," The Guardian (online), January 11, 2010, see , accessed 9 May 2015. [Quote: "Henley's 'Waiting,' from his 'In Hospital' sequence of poems far outshines his better known 'Invictus.'"]
- Andrzej Diniejko, 2011, "William Ernest Henley: A Biographical Sketch," at Victorian Web (online), updated July 19, 2011, see , accessed 9 May 2015.
- Jerome Hamilton Buckley, 1945, William Ernest Henley: A Study in the Counter-Decadence of the Nineties, Princeton, NJ:Princeton University Press. [Source appearing at Victorian Web article on Henley.
- Edward H. Cohen, 1974, The Henley-Stevenson Quarrel, Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press. [Source appearing at Victorian Web article on Henley.
- John Connell, 1949, W. E. Henley, London, U.K.:Constable. [Source appearing at Victorian Web article on Henley.
- Donald Davidson, 1937, British Poetry of the Eighteen-Nineties, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran. [Source appearing at Victorian Web article on Henley.
- Maria H. Frawley, 2004, Invalidism and Identity in Nineteenth-century Britain, Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. [Source appearing at Victorian Web article on Henley.
References and notes
- Green, Lancelyn Rogers. Fifty Years of Peter Pan. P. Davies, 1954. pg. 36.
- James, William Price. Encyclopædia Britannica 11th ed. (Hugh Chisholm & Walter Alison Phillips, Eds.), Vol. 13 Slice 3. p. 271. Retrieved 8 May 2015.
- Ancestry.com. UK and Ireland, Find A Grave Index, 1300s-Current [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012. Find A Grave. Find A Grave. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi.
- Diniejko, Andrzej (19 July 2011). "William Ernest Henley: A Biographical Sketch". The Victorian Web. Retrieved 9 November 2016.
- John Connell, 1949, W. E. Henley, London:Constable, page numbers as indicated.
- Ernest, Mehew (25 May 2006). "Henley, William Ernest (1849–1903)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
- Mehew, Ernest. "William Ernest Henley, (1849–1903)," in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [2004 Ed.], Oxford, UK". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. Retrieved 8 May 2015.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- Connell, op. cit., dates this as 1865, but Mehew, op. cit. suggests 1868–69, in the period when Henley was being treated in St. Bartholomew's Hospital, London.
- McDowell, Margaret B. (1983). British Poets, 1880–1914. Vol. 19. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Co. p. 202. ISBN 0810317001.
- The Story of the House of Cassell. Cassell & Co., 1922. p. 211.
- Bell, Ian. Dreams of Exile: Robert Louis Stevenson. Macmillan, 1993, p. 86.
- Cohen, Edward (April 2004). "THE SECOND SERIES OF W. E. HENLEY'S HOSPITAL POEMS". Yale University Library Gazette. 78 (3/4): 128–150. JSTOR 40859569.
- Low, Sidney. "Some Memories and Impressions – WILLIAM ERNEST HENLEY". The Living Age (1897-1941), vol. 239, no. 3093, 1903, p. 150.
- Blunt, Wilfrid Scawen. My Diaries: 1888–1900.–pt. 2. 1900–1914. A. A. Knopf, 1921, p. 63.
- Parish: Edinburgh St Mary; ED: 45; Page: 8; Line: 18; Roll: CSSCT1861_126. Ancestry.com. 1861 Scotland Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2006.
- Parish: Edinburgh St Cuthberts; ED: 66; Page: 2; Line: 13; Roll: CSSCT1891_342. Ancestry.com. 1891 Scotland Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2007. Scotland. 1891 Scotland Census. Reels 1-409. General Register Office for Scotland, Edinburgh, Scotland.
- Christopher Winn, 2012, "I Never Knew That About England," Londond, U.K.:Random House, ISBN 1448146062, pp. 3–4, see , accessed 9 May 2015.
- "The History of Wendy". Archived from the original on 18 March 2009. Retrieved 25 July 2009.[better source needed]
- Flora, Joseph M. William Ernest Henley. Twayne Publishers, 1970, p. 55.
- Ancestry.com. UK and Ireland, Find A Grave Index, 1300s-Current [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012. Find A Grave. Find A Grave. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi.
- The Selected Letters of W. E. Henley. Edited by Damien Atkinson. Routledge, 2016.
- Mehew, Ernest (2006). "Henley, William Ernest (1849-1903)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
- Ancestry.com. England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858–1995[database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010. Principal Probate Registry. Calendar of the Grants of Probate and Letters of Administration made in the Probate Registries of the High Court of Justice in England.
- Henley, William Ernest (1891). A Book of Verses. Schribner and Welford.
- Henley, William Ernest (1873–75). "In Hospital". victorianweb.org.
- White, Gleeson (1888). "Ballades and Rondeaus, Chants Royal, Sestinas, Villanelles, &c.: Selected with Chapter on the Various Forms (William Sharp, Gen. Series Ed.)". pp. xix, 16–22, 77–82, 139–141, 169–173, 221, 251–253, 288–290. Retrieved 8 May 2015.
- Hughes, Linda K. Rosamund Marriott Watson, Woman of Letters. Ohio University Press, 2005. P. 81.
- "A New Poet of Promise". The Chicago daily Tribute. 1889.
- Low, Sidney. "WILLIAM ERNEST HENLEY." The Living Age (1897-1941), vol. 239, no. 3093, Oct 17, 1903, pp. 150. ProQuest, http://flagship.luc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/90224255?accountid=12163.
- 'McVeigh's Final Statement', 'The Guardian', 11 June 2001. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/jun/11/mcveigh.usa1
- 'When poems of resistance get twisted for terrorism' 'The Atlantic', 16 March 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/03/new-zealand-shooting-manifesto-poems-dylan-thomas/585079/
- 'The Great Replacement', Section IV, 'In Conclusion', P.70, by Brenton Tarrant, issued 15 March 2019.
- "The Newest Books." The Book Buyer. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1890, pg. 258.
- Stevenson, R.L. to W.E. Henley. Letter. August 1, 1892. Edited by Robert Bridges, Alfred Dashiell, Harlan Logan. Scribner's Magazine, vol. 26, Charles Scribners Sons, 1899, pg. 579.
- About the selection of so many of his works, Gleeson White, 1888, op cit., states: "In a society paper, The London, a brilliant series of these poems appeared during 1877-8. After a selection was made for this volume, it was discovered that they were all by one author, Mr. W. E. Henley, who most generously permitted the whole of those chosen to appear, and to be for the first time publicly attributed to him. The poems themselves need no apology, but in the face of so many from his pen, it is only right to explain the reason for the inclusion of so large a number."
- William Ernest Henley, 1901, Hawthorn and Lavender, with Other Verses, New York, NY:Harper and Bros. (orig, London, England:David Nutt at the Sign of the Phœnix in Long Acre), see  and , accessed 9 May 2015.
- "Love blows as the wind blows". The LiederNet Archive. Retrieved 7 November 2016.
- Henley, William Ernest (7 March 2019). ""Pro Rege Nostro"". Bartleby.com.
- Reader, J.W. At Duty's Call: A Study in Obsolete Patriotism. Manchester University Press, 1991, pg. 231.
- Boehmer, Elleke (2008). Nelson Mandela: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, U.K.:OUP. p. 157. ISBN 0192803018. Retrieved 9 May 2015.
Quote: In 'Invictus', taken on its own, Mandela clearly found his Victorian ethic of self-mastery given compelling expression within the frame of a controlled rhyme scheme supported by strong, monosyllabic nouns. It was only a small step from espousing this poem to assuming a Victorian persona, as he could do in letters to his children. In ways they predictably found alienating, he liked to exhort them to ever-greater effort, reiterating that ambition and drive were the only means of escaping an 'inferior position' in life.
- Daniels, Eddie (1998). There and Back: Robben Island, 1964–1979. Belleville, South Africa:Mayibuye Books. p. 244. ISBN 1868083802.
- Invictus. 2009. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.
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William Ernest Henley
- Works by William Ernest Henley at Project Gutenberg
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- Works by William Ernest Henley at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
- Poetry Archive: 137 poems of William Ernest Henley
- "The Difference", a poem by Florence Earle Coates
- William Ernest Henley: Profile and Poems at Poets.org