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Myers, Frederic William Henry (DNB01)

MYERS, FREDERIC WILLIAM HENRY (1843–1901), poet and essayist, was born on 6 Feb. 1843 at Keswick in Cumberland. His father was the Rev. Frederic Myers [q. v.], perpetual curate of St. John's, Keswick, and his mother was Susan Harriet, youngest daughter of John Marshall of Hallsteads (a beautifully situated house on the left bank of Ulleswater), who was M.P. in 1832 for the undivided county of Yorkshire. Mrs. Myers was her husband's second wife, married in 1842; and Frederic was the eldest of their three sons. When he was seven 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 three years attended a preparatory day school, under the 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 fifteenth year of its existence, under its second principal, the Rev. W. Dobson. His taste for poetry was unmistakable from the first. He has himself recorded the delight which the study of Homer, Æschylus, and Lucretius brought him from the age of fourteen to sixteen, and the 'intoxicating joy' which attended the discovery of Sappho's fragments in an old school book at the age of seventeen. 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 Vergil by heart before he had passed the school age.

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 first year; in 1858, besides gaining the prize for Latin lyrics, he sent in two English poems, in different metres, which were both successful; in 1859 he entered for the national 'Robert Burns Centenary' competition with a poem which was placed second in the judges' award. 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.' In the same year he was elected the first minor scholar of Trinity College, Cambridge, and went into residence in October. At the university few men have won more honours. The record is as follows: a college scholarship and declamation prize; two university scholarships (the Bell and the Craven); no less than six university prizes (the English poem twice, the Latin poem, the Latin essay three times); second classic in the spring of 1864; second in the first class of the Moral Sciences Tripos in December of the same year, and fellow of Trinity in 1865.

Immediately after graduating in 1864, he took a four 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 first Englishman to perform this dangerous feat. In the October term of 1865 he was appointed classical lecturer in Trinity College, Cambridge, and held the office for four years; but his bent was not for teaching, and he resigned the lectureship in 1809. Two 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.

He was married on 13 March 1880, by Dean Stanley (an old friend of his father's), in Henry VII's chapel, Westminster Abbey, to Eveleen, youngest daughter of Charles Tennant of Cadoxton Lodge, Neath. In 1881 he and his wife took up their abode in Cambridge, which was their home from that time forward.

Apart from his official duties and the circle of his family and friends, the chief interests of a life that was outwardly uneventful were centred round two things—first, his literary work; and, secondly, the systematic investigation into mesmerism, clairvoyance, automatism, and other abnormal phenomena, real or alleged.

His work in poetry was intermittent, and was practically confined, as far as the published pieces are concerned, to the fifteen years between 1867 and 1882. Many of these poems appeared first in magazines, and were afterwards collected and reissued with additions. The first 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. 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 eleven 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 twelve years. This book and 'St. Paul,' now published separately, represent for the public the author's work in poetry. That he ceased for the remaining eighteen 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 twenty years of his life, in the work of psychical research.

His poetic work was known at first to comparatively few, but of late years has 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 latest poem, 'The Renewal of Youth'), could leave few qualified readers in doubt of the genuineness of his poetic gift.

His prose papers were written at various times previous to 1883, when they were collected in two volumes, with the title 'Essays, Classical and Modern,' which have been twice reprinted, in 1888 and 1897. They fall naturally into two 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. Of the first 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.'

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. Mr. John Morley justly describes Myers's work as ' distinguished as much by insight as by admirable literary grace and power.' 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 defence is all the more effective, because he so well understands the feelings of the assailants. In the same year in which Myers's 'Essays' first appeared (1883) he issued a new edition of his father's book, 'Catholic Thoughts,' with a preface by himself.

While residing as lecturer in Trinity College he was brought into close relations with Professor Henry Sidgwick [q. v. Suppl.], 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. 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. 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. 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 first considerable result of these labours was published in the two large volumes entitled 'Phantasms of the Living,' the society numbered nearly seven hundred 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 Messrs. 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 two 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.' 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 must be it is recognised by himself as being largely provisional. His own labours 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 will appear in a book, already (March 1901) announced, entitled 'Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death.' 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 two 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.

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.

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 Jan. in his fifty-eighth year. A tablet was placed to his memory in the protestant cemetery, where are Keats's grave and Shelley's memorial, and he was buried beside his father and mother in Keswick churchyard, within sight of his old home.

All who knew him agree 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.

[Personal memories and private information; the Cheltenham College Register; his own published work, and private diaries and papers.]

A. S.