Born in Gloucester, England, poet, editor, and critic William Ernest Henley was educated at Crypt Grammar School, where he studied with the poet T.E. Brown, and the University of St. Andrews. His father was a struggling bookseller who died when Henley was a teenager. At age 12 Henley was diagnosed with tubercular arthritis that necessitated the amputation of one of his legs just below the knee; the other foot was saved only through a radical surgery performed by Joseph Lister. As he healed in the infirmary, Henley began to write poems, including “Invictus,” which concludes with the oft-referenced lines “I am the master of my fate; / I am the captain of my soul.” Henley’s poems often engage themes of inner strength and perseverance. His numerous collections of poetry include A Book of Verses (1888), London Voluntaries (1893), and Hawthorn and Lavender (1899).
Henley edited the Scots Observer (which later became the National Observer), through which he befriended writer Rudyard Kipling, and the Magazine of Art, in which he lauded the work of emerging artists James McNeill Whistler and Auguste Rodin. Henley was a close friend of Robert Louis Stevenson, who reportedly based his Long John Silver character in Treasure Island in part on Henley.