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Frederic W.H. Myers (1843-1901). Portrait by William Clarke Wontner (1857-1930). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Frederic William Henry Myers (6 February 1843 - 17 January 1901) was an English poet, literary critic, classicist, and philologist, and a founder of the Society for Psychical Research.[1]



Myers, son of a clergyman, was born at Keswick, and educated at Cheltenham and Cambridge. He became an inspector of schools, and was the author of several volumes of poetry, including St. Paul (1867). He page also wrote Essays Classical and Modern, and Lives of Wordsworth and Shelley. Becoming interested in mesmerism and spiritualism he aided in founding the Society for Psychical Research, and was joint author of Phantasms of the Living. His last work was Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (1903).[2]


Myers was born 6 February 1843 at Keswick in Cumberland, the eldest of 3 sons of Rev. Frederic Myers, perpetual curate of St. John's, Keswick, and his mother was Susan Harriet (Marshall), youngest daughter of John Marshall of Hallsteads, who was MP in 1832 for the undivided county of Yorkshire. Mrs. Myers was her husband's 2nd wife, married in 1842.[3] He was a brother of poet Ernest Myers (1844–1921) and of Dr. Arthur Thomas Myers (1851–1894).[4]

When Frederic was 7 years old his father's health failed; and on the death of the latter in 1851 the family moved to Blackheath, where the eldest boy for 3 years attended a preparatory day school, under Rev. R. Cowley Powles, a well-known teacher. In 1856 Mrs. Myers took a house at Cheltenham; and in August of the same year Frederic, aged 13, was entered at Cheltenham College, then in the 15th year of its existence, under its 2nd principal, Rev. W. Dobson.[3]

His taste for poetry was unmistakable from the start. He has himself recorded the delight which the study of Homer, Æschylus, and Lucretius brought him from the age of 14 to 16, and the "intoxicating joy" which attended the discovery of Sappho's fragments in an old school book at the age of 17. His enthusiasm for Pindar, which also dates from his school days, is well remembered by his college friends in their eager undergraduate discussions; and it may well be doubted if there ever lived another English boy who had learned for his pleasure the whole of Virgil by heart before he had passed the school age.[3]

His great ability, and particularly his poetic powers, were recognised at once by schoolfellows and teachers alike. He had a very distinguished career at Cheltenham College; he won the senior classical scholarship in his 1st year; in 1858, besides gaining the prize for Latin lyrics, he sent in 2 English poems, in different meters, which were both successful.[3]

In October 1859 he left the school, and passed a year of private study, part of the time with Mr. Dobson, who had in the summer resigned the head-mastership. But though Myers had left, he was qualified to compete again for the college prize for English verse, which he won in 1860 with a remarkable poem on the "Death of Socrates."[3]

In 1859 he was elected the 1st minor scholar of Trinity College, Cambridge, and went into residence in October.[3] and earned a B.A. in 1865.[5] He became a fellow of Trinity in 1865,[3] and was a fellow until 1874.

At the university few men have won more honors. His record is as follows: a college scholarship and declamation prize; 2 university scholarships (the Bell and the Craven); no less than 6 university prizes (the English poem twice, the Latin poem, the Latin essay 3 times); 2nd classic in the spring of 1864; 2nd in the 1st class of the Moral Sciences Tripos in December of the same year.[3]


Myers and daughter, from Collected Poems, 1921. Courtesy Internet Archive.

Immediately after graduating in 1864, he took a 4 months' tour on the continent, visiting Italy, Greece, Smyrna and the islands, and Constantinople; and in the next summer he spent a large portion of the long vacation in Canada and the United States. In the course of this visit he swam across the river below the Niagara Falls, being, it is believed, the 1st Englishman to perform this dangerous feat.[6]

In the October term of 1865 he was appointed classical lecturer in Trinity College, and held the office for 4 years; but his bent was not for teaching, and he resigned the lectureship in 1869. 2 years later he accepted a temporary appointment under the education department, and in 1872 he was placed on the permanent staff of school inspectors, a post which he held until within a few weeks of his death.[6]

He was married on 13 March 1880, by Dean Stanley (an old friend of his father's), in Henry VII's chapel, Westminster Abbey,[6] to Eveleen Tennant (1856–1937), daughter of Gertrude and Charles Tennant (1796-1873). They had 2 sons, the elder novelist Leopold Hamilton Myers (1881–1944), and a daughter.[7]

Apart from his official duties and the circle of his family and friends, the chief interests of a life that was outwardly uneventful were centered round two things: his literary work, and the systematic investigation into mesmerism, clairvoyance, automatism, and other abnormal phenomena, real or alleged.[6]

His prose papers were collected in 2 volumes in 1883, with the title Essays: Classical and modern, reprinted in 1888 and 1897.[6] In the same year in which Myers's Essays appeared (1883) he issued a new edition of his father's book, Catholic Thoughts, with a preface by himself.[8]

Psychic research[]


Frederic Myers & Psychical Research with Terence Palmer

While residing as lecturer in Trinity College he was brought into close relations with Professor Henry Sidgwick, who became one of his most valued friends. It was largely due to their friendship that Myers was led to take a great interest in the higher education of women, of which, from 1870 onwards, Sidgwick was an active promoter. About the same time, or even earlier, Myers had begun to give much attention to the phenomena of mesmerism and spiritualism, and he speaks (1871) of "the sympathetic and cautious guidance" which his friend was able to give him in such matters.[8]

The poem called "The Implicit Promise of Immortality" (1870) suggests that another reason, strongly drawing him to such studies, was a deep modification of his early religious beliefs. To the "intensely personal emotion" which underlay (as he records) the early poems of St. Paul and John the Baptist (1867-8) had succeeded for the time "disillusion caused by wider knowledge;" and for fresh light, it would seem, he began to look to the scientific study of imperfectly explored phenomena.[8]

However this may be, he was one of the small band of men who in 1882, after several years of inquiry and experiment, founded the Society for Psychical Research, of which the purpose was to collect evidence, and to carry on systematic experiments in the obscure region of hypnotism, thought transference, clairvoyance, spiritualism, apparition, and other alleged occurrences, in regard to which the common attitude has been well described as being mainly either a priori disbelief or undiscerning credulity.[8] Myers became the President of the Society in 1900.[9]

The chief workers, besides Myers and Professor and Mrs. Sidgwick, were at first Professors Balfour Stewart and Barrett, Mr. Hodgson, Edmund Gurney [q. v.], and Mr. F. Podmore. By 1886, when the 1st considerable result of these labors was published in the 2 large volumes entitled Phantasms of the Living, the society numbered nearly 700 members and associates, including many distinguished men of science in England, France, Italy, Germany, Russia, and America. The Phantasms of the Living was the joint work of Myers, Podmore, and Gurney, the heaviest part of the labour being borne by Gurney. The introduction was contributed by Myers, and he there formulates the central theses of the book, of which the gist is contained in the 2 claims: (1) "that telepathy, or the transference of thought and feeling from one mind to another by other than the recognised sense channels, is a proved fact of nature;" and (2) "that phantasms (or impressions) of persons undergoing a crisis, especially death, are perceived with a frequency inexplicable by chance, and are probably telepathic."[8]

The other considerable work of Myers in the same field, which has already appeared, is the long series of papers on the 'Subliminal Self,' which are printed in the society's Proceedings. This work is briefly described by Professor William James (Essays in Popular Philosophy, 1897) as "the first attempt to consider the phenomena of hallucination, hypnotism, automatism, double personality, and mediumship, as connected parts of one whole subject." Of the permanent value of this work it is impossible to speak yet with confidence; it was recognized by himself as being largely provisional.[8]

His own labors in this field were continued through the years since 1882 with the same devoted strenuousness, and the definite study which latterly he had in hand was practically completed before his death. The results appeared in 1901, entitled Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death.[8]

The last work published in his lifetime was a small collection of essays called Science and a Future Life (1893), in which are included the 2 papers "Tennyson as Prophet" and "Modern Poets and Cosmic Law." These are the maturest and most eloquent expression of his views on poetry, especially in relation to the great questions that engrossed the interest of his later years.[8]

In 1903, after Myers's death, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death was compiled and published. It was two large volumes at 1,360 pages in length, which presented an overview of Myers's research into the unconscious mind.[10][11] Myers believed that a theory of consciousness must be part of a unified model of mind, which derive from the full range of human experience, including not only normal psychological phenomena but also the wide variety of abnormal and "supernormal" phenomena.[10][11]

Frederic Myers may be regarded as an "important early depth psychologist", and his significant influence on colleagues like William James, Pierre Janet, and Théodore Flournoy and also Carl G. Jung has been well documented.[12]

Metetherial World[]

Myers speculated on the existence of a deep region of the unconscious (collective unconscious) or what he termed the “subliminal self” which he believed could account for paranormal events. He also proposed the existence of a “metetherial world,” which he wrote to be a world of images lying beyond the physical world. He wrote that apparitions are not hallucinations but have a real existence in the metetherial world which he described as a dream-like world.[13] Myers’ belief that apparitions occupied regions of physical space and had an objective existence was in opposition to his contemporaries views such as Edmund Gurney and Frank Podmore who wrote that apparitions were hallucinations.[14]


All who knew him agreed that he was a man of rare and high intellectual gifts, original, acute, and thoughtful; subtle in insight, abundant in ideas, vivid and eloquent, in expression; a personality at once forcible, ardent, and intense.[15]

In the striking essay on "George Eliot," written shortly after her death in December 1880, he speaks with unreserved admiration of the noble and unselfish spirit in which she faced the consequences of her belief that death was the end. But he adds: "There were some to whom ... this resignation seemed premature; some whose impulsion to a personal life beyond the grave was so preoccupying and dominant, that they could not readily acquiesce in her negations, nor range themselves unreservedly as the fellow-workers of her brave despair." No reader can fail to see that he is here speaking of himself.[8]

His health failed rather suddenly in the autumn of 1900, and he went abroad for the winter by medical advice, though encouraged to hope that rest would work a complete cure. But early in 1901 grave symptoms returned, and he died at Rome on 17 January in his 58th year.[15]

He was buried beside his father and mother in Keswick churchyard, within sight of his old home.[15]



His work in poetry was intermittent, and was practically confined, as far as the published pieces are concerned, to the 15 years between 1867 and 1882. Many of these poems appeared initially in magazines, and were afterwards collected and reissued with additions.[6]

The 1st to appear was the poem entitled St. Paul (London, 1867, 8vo). This was composed for the Seatonian Prize, an English verse competition at Cambridge, confined to graduates; but it failed to obtain the prize, possibly because it did not conform to the traditional requirements, though of all Myers's poems it is perhaps the most widely known.[6]

In 1870 appeared a small volume of collected pieces, which in a few years was exhausted, and which the author never reprinted as a whole. But he continued to write occasional pieces, which were published in magazines; and in 1882 a new collection was issued, which was entitled, from the latest written and most important poem, The Renewal of Youth.' This poem, containing many passages of striking beauty, was a sort of palinode to "The Passing of Youth," written from another point of view 11 years earlier, and included in the 1882 volume. There were also a few poems from the 1870 collection, as well as various shorter pieces written in the intervening 12 years. This book and St. Paul, now published separately, represent for the public the author's work in poetry.[6]

That he ceased for the remaining 18 years of his life to seek expression for his thoughts and feelings in verse, except on the rarest occasions, could not be ascribed by any one who knew him either to a loss of interest or to the least decay of power. The true reason was no doubt the growing absorption of his leisure, during the last 20 years of his life, in the work of psychical research.[6]

His poetic work was known at 1st to comparatively few, but by the turn of the century had a steadily increasing public; and the compressed force, the ardent feeling, the vivid and finished expression, and, above all, the combined imaginativeness and sincerity of his best work (particularly his last poem, "The Renewal of Youth"), could leave few qualified readers in doubt of the genuineness of his poetic gift.[6]


His prose papers were written at various times before 1883, when they were collected in 2 volumes, with the title Essays: Classical and modern, which have been twice reprinted, in 1888 and 1897. They fall naturally into 2 groups, according as they are concerned with poetry (as in the essays on Virgil, Rossetti, Victor Hugo, and Trench), or touch on the questions of religious thought, or on the psychological, moral, and spiritual subjects and problems which tended more and more to occupy his mind. The latter emerge in, or underlie, the papers on Mazzini, Renan, and George Eliot, on Marcus Aurelius, and on Greek Oracles.[6]

Of the 1st group the most remarkable is undoubtedly the paper (which first appeared in 1879 in the Fortnightly Review) on Virgil, the poet who above all others had been the object of his reverence and enthusiasm from early boyhood, and whom he later describes as "one of the supports of his life."[6]

Myers's monograph on Wordsworth was published in 1881 in the series of 'English Men of Leters;' and after all that men of genius have written about Wordsworth, from Ruskin and Matthew Arnold downwards, there are not a few readers who owe a special debt to the penetrating and illuminating criticism of this little volume.[6]

John Morley justly describes Myers's work as "distinguished as much by insight as by admirable literary grace and power."[6] The same insight and skill appear in the brief essay on Shelley contributed in 1880 to Ward's English Poets, where Myers adopts the happy device of stating the case against Shelley of the average intelligent but unimaginative critic. Myers's defense is all the more effective, because he so well understands the feelings of the assailants.[8]

Critical introduction[]

by John Drinkwater

A great deal of human emotion, that is of real and urgent significance, is vague, and in nearly every heart escapes all attempts at the solace of definition. For example, most people know at moments the instinct for some unrealizable self-identification with natural phenomena. While, however, the existence and force of this kind of emotion is unquestionable, the poet can hope to achieve anything in his art until he understands that nebulous feeling, however real it may be, is a thing that words are wholly incapable of expressing. Good poets have sometimes in their apprenticeship, before they have considered wisely the functions of their art, indulged the fallacy that leads to such writing as —

  “I yearn towards the sunset
In the magic of the twilight,
And the radiance of the heavens
Fills my soul with throbbing beauty …

but unless a man recovers from the error in his very green days, he forfeits any hope of poetic distinction. For to write thus is not to express mysterious and subtle emotion, but to lose oneself in an unintelligible foam of words. The poet, indeed, must by no means ignore this particular sort of emotional experience; it is far too universal and profound a thing for that. But it is his business to realize its essential value and to translate that precise value into an image that is capable of exact and vivid, or poetical, definition in words. It is failure to perceive this fundamental and invariable necessity of the art that is the cause of nearly all the bad poetry in the world.

A great deal of the work of Frederic Myers, a poet of many gifts, suffers from this failure, though his fine classical scholarship ought to have saved him. His most famous and still popular poem, Saint Paul, has metrical interest, though the form in itself is apt to combine with Myers’s mental method to throw an emotional haze over the work. Here and there are figures of comparatively sharp definition, as in the passage here given, though a characteristic vagueness in the poem makes it difficult for us to do more than feel that here is a fine spiritual fervor, but that our perception of it is incomplete because of the lack of precision in the poet’s statement.

Many of Myers’s other poems are touched by the same defect, but his real singing quality carries him happily through shorter pieces — such as that general favorite, "Simmenthal" — often enough to give him permanently something at least of the fame that was so widely his in his own day. With secondary poetic qualities he was well equipped; he had an earnest curiosity about life, wide and liberal knowledge, a sensitive and individual rhythmical gift, considerable grace of style, and spiritual dignity; and when he was visited by the clearer poetic mood, and was not misled by his too volatile imagination, these fine natural gifts were ready to the service of his inspiration, and he wrote shapely verse, infused at its best with a generous temper and real tenderness, and now and again moving with great delicacy, as in the subtle arrangement of the last line of —

Across the ocean, swift and soon,
  This faded petal goes,
To her who is herself as June,
  And lovely, and a rose.[16]


in 1859 Myers entered the national 'Robert Burns Centenary' competition with a poem which was placed 2nd in the judges' award.[3]

A tablet was placed to his memory in the protestant cemetery in Rome.[15]






  • Introduction to Edmund Gurney, [Phantasms of the Living]. London: Society for Psychical Research / Trubner, 1886
    • abridged edition. (1 volume), London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner / New York: E.P. Dutton, 1918; Gainseville, FL: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1970.
  • Science and a Future Life, with other essays. London & New York: Macmillan, 1893.
  • The Drift of Psychical Research. London: 1894.
  • Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (2 volumes), London& New York: Longmans, Green, 1903. Volume I, Volume II.
  • Fragments of Inner Life: an autobiographical sketch. London: Society for Psychical Research, 1961.
  • The Subliminal Consciousness. New York: Arno Press, 1976.

Collected editions[]

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[17]

See also[]



  1. William James. Frederic Myers's Service to Psychology The Popular Science Monthly, August 1901, pp. 380–389.
  2. John William Cousin, "Myers, Frederic William Henry," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: Dent / New York: Dutton, 1910, 282-283. Wikisource, Web, Feb. 15, 2018.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 Sidgwick, 215.
  4. J. H. Lupton; George Herring, "Myers, Frederic (1811–1851)", on the website of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Template:ODNBsub), 
  5. Catherine W. Reilly (2000). Victorian poetry, 1860–1879: an annotated biobibliography Continuum International Publishing Group, 2000, 332.
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 6.12 6.13 Sedgwick, 216.
  7. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named ODNB
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 8.7 8.8 8.9 Sidgwick, 217.
  9. Society for Psychical Research:Past Presidents
  10. 10.0 10.1 Emily W. Kelly and Carlos S. Alvarado. Images in Psychiatry: Frederic William Henry Myers, 1843–1901 American Journal of Psychiatry, 162:34, January 2005.
  11. 11.0 11.1 W. McDougall. Review: Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death Mind, Vol. 12, No. 48 (Oct., 1903), pp. 513–526.
  12. Book review:Irreducible Mind, The Journal of Mind and Behavior, Vol.29, No 4, Autumn 2008.
  13. Myers, F.W.H. (1903). Human personality and its survival of death. London: Longmans.
  14. Gurney, E., Myers, F.W.H., & Podmore, F. (1886a). Phantasms of the living. Vol I and II London: Trubner.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 Sidgwick, 218.
  16. from John Drinkwater, "Critical Introduction: Frederic William Henry Myers (1843–1901)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Mar. 28, 2016.
  17. Search results =au:F.W.H. Myers, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Oct. 9, 2013.

External links[]


This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement (edited by Sidney Lee)​. London: Smith, Elder, 1901. Original article is at: Myers, Frederic William Henry