Study Guide

L. H. Myers

L. H. Myers Essay - Critical Essays

Myers, L. H.

Introduction

L. H. Myers 1881-1944

(Full name Leopold Hamilton Myers) English poet and novelist.

A novelist concerned with both spiritual transcendence and social equality, Myers is best known for The Near and the Far, a tetralogy set in sixteenth-century India. Briefly active with the Bloomsbury Group, Myers rejected what he deemed its members' insufficient regard for spiritual matters; in his own fiction, he insisted upon the importance of the soul as a link to the eternal. Myers also repudiated the insularity, elitism, and socially irresponsible aesthetics that he associated with the Bloomsbury coterie, particularly after the 1930s, when he became convinced that only communism could free people from the social constraints imposed by class affiliation.

Biographical Information

Born in Cambridge, Myers was descended from two liberal and intellectually accomplished families. His mother, Evelyn Tennant Myers, maintained a photography studio in the family home. His father, F. W. H. Myers, was a classicist and poet who founded the Society for Psychical Research, and as a child Myers participated in a number of the seances through which his father sought to establish the immortality of the soul. The young Myers attended Eton, graduating in 1899 and spending a year in Germany before he entered Trinity College, Cambridge; he left the university without taking a degree when his father died in 901. To console his mother, Myers accompanied her on a visit to America, where he fell in love with a young heiress, Elsie Palmer. Upon his return to Cambridge, Myers received a legacy from his godfather that left him financially independent. Although he continued to travel and socialize extensively, he also undertook several intellectual projects, editing his father's long work, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, and composing a verse play, Arvat, published in 1908. After his marriage to Elsie Palmer that year, Myers began work on his first novel, The Orissers, which took him ten years to complete. Published to considerable acclaim in 1922, The Orissers was followed three years later by The Clio. In 1929 Myers published The Near and the Far, the first volume in a series set in India during the Mogul era and focussing on a young man's spiritual quest. Prince Jali, the second novel in the series, appeared in 1931. Four years later, Myers published The Root and the Flower, which contained The Near and the Far, Prince Jali, and a new novel, Rajah Amar. During the late 1930s Myers's sympathy for Russian communism manifested itself in Strange Glory (1936) and The Pool of Vishnu (1940). The latter novel concluded his Indian series, the four volumes of which were published in 1943 under the collective title The Near and the Far. Myers committed suicide the following year.

Major Works

In Arvat, his blank verse drama, Myers disparages the corruption that ensues, in his view, from material ambition, and this theme permeates all of his later work. The Orissers takes place during the 1920s in a remote district of Wales, where two families are vying to possess Eamor, the country estate that one of the families has owned for five hundred years. Compared to Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights for its inquiry into the relationship between love and sexual desire, and to E. M. Forster's Howards End for its examination of how individuals must mute their passions to survive in a social order, The Orissers, according to G. H. Bantock, "exhibits the characteristic preoccupations of Myers in a somewhat raw and undigested state." Myers criticized the decadent materialism that he identifies with the privileged classes once again in The Clio, another contemporary work concerning a wealthy Englishman dying of malaria aboard a steam yacht on the Amazon. The Root and the Flower, which consists of the first three novels of Myers' Indian series, was influenced by Arthur Waley's translation of Lady Murasaki's The Tale of Genji, then being published serially. However, while Myers adopted Murasaki's setting, an Asian court, The Root and the Flower is more concerned than The Tale of Genji with appraising different means to spiritual enlightenment. In representing the young Prince Jali's quest for peace, Myers exposes him to characters who espouse Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, and various other religious and philosophical schemas, incorporating psychological symbolism drawn from Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and drawing as well upon memories of the numerous mediums he met during his own childhood. More interested in exploring philosophical issues relevant to modern readers than in scrupling to achieve historical verisimilitude, Myers castigates the amoral aestheticism that he associated with Bloomsbury in The Root and the Flower, wherein he portrays a colony of insular and hedonistic aesthetes. Strange Glory, Myers's final novel set during the twentieth century, depicts Paulina, an American-born heiress who returns to Louisiana after her marriage to an English lord ends in divorce. Visiting the bayou annually, she meets two men. Tom Wentworth, the elder, is a mystic; Stephen, the younger, is a social reformer whose wife and child live in Russia. With Wentworth's help, Paulina achieves oneness with a primordial unconscious, which Myers derived from Carl Jung and embodied in the bayou. Paulina falls in love with Stephen, and, when he and his wife die, she travels to Russia to care for their orphaned child. The Pool of Vishnu, the fourth and concluding novel of Myers's Indian series, is far longer than the three preceding novels. It introduces a new protagonist, the Guru, who believes in the essential goodness of man and advocates transforming the social order by dispossessing the propertied class. Like Strange Glory, The Pool of Vishnu attests to Myers's enthusiasm for a society based on personal affection rather than one determined by class, and the Guru repeatedly endorses this sentiment.

Critical Reception

Bantock has described Myers as "more interested in ideas' than in people," and critics have contended that many of his characters function as mouthpieces for various philosophical creeds, while others are not sufficiently differentiated from one another or from the narrator. The latter charge may result from Myers's predilection for what W. D. Harding terms "quasi-musings, half soliloquy from a character and half author's comment." "At its worst," Harding maintains, Myers's style could be "stilted" and "ponderous." A related critique faults Myers's penchant for elaborating his themes without dramatizing them. "Mr. Myers," R. P. Blackmur wrote of the tetralogy, "is nowhere able to resort to the great advantages of plot." Myers has also been criticized for the vagueness and irrelevance of his settings; in his fiction, Christopher Gillie notes, the "material environment is indistinct." In Strange Glory and, especially, The Pool of Vishnu, Myers drew additional fire from critics who charged that he was more prone to oversimplify and proselytize following his espousal of communism. Yet almost all of Myers's critics commend the philosophical seriousness that distinguishes his fiction, particularly The Near and the Far, which has been unanimously praised as his most successful work. Numerous scholars have lauded the novelist's accurate, sympathetic portrayal of Buddhism in this series, while others have praised the knowledge of Freudian and Jungian psychology that informs it. In the estimation of L. P. Hartley, the tetralogy "is a unique work: there is nothing like it in the field of English fiction."

Principal Works

Arvat (drama) [first publication] 1908

The Orissers (novel) 1922

The Clio (novel) 1925

The Near and the Far (novel) 1929

Prince Jali (novel) 1931

Rajah Amar (novel) 1935; published in The Root and the Flower

*The Root and the Flower (novels) 1935

Strange Glory (novel) 1936

The Pool of Vishnu (novel) 1940

†The Near and the Far (novels) 1943

*This volume contains The Near and the Far, Prince Jali, and the previously unpublished Rajah Amar.

†This volume contains The Near and the Far, Prince Jali, Rajah Amar, and The Pool of Vishnu.

Criticism

D. W. Harding (essay date 1934)

SOURCE: "The Work of L. H. Myers," in Scrutiny, Vol. III, No. 1, June, 1934, pp. 44-63.

[In the following excerpt, Harding asserts that Myers's character development, plotting, and prose are more subtle in The Orissers, The Near and the Far, and Prince Jali than in The Clio.]

In all four of his novels [The Orissers, The Clio, The Near and the Far, and Prince Jali] L. H. Myers is concerned with the theme of individual development in a civilized society, a society in which leisure and a tradition of culture make possible the practised intelligence and sensibility which he takes to be necessary conditions of development. He doesn't imply of...

(The entire section is 7579 words.)

Mark Van Doren (essay date 1934?)

SOURCE: "A Connoisseur of Character," in The Private Reader: Selected Articles & Reviews, Henry Holt and Company, 1942, pp. 208-10.

[In the following excerpt, Van Doren praises the philosophical and psychological sophistication of The Root and the Flower.]

[The Root and the Flower] contains three long parts of the presumably endless work Mr. Myers is prepared to write about certain imaginary lives which were lived in sixteenth-century India during the reign of the Emperor Akbar. By ordinary standards The Near and the Far, Prince Jali, and Rajah Amar are superb. But Mr. Myers makes it clear in his preface that he does not want to be judged by...

(The entire section is 726 words.)

John Crowe Ransom (essay date 1936)

SOURCE: "Fiction Harvest," in The Southern Review, Louisiana State University, Vol. II, No. 2, Autumn, 1936, pp. 399-418.

[In the following excerpt, Ransom praises the emotional power of Strange Glory but contends that Myers's overly abstract prose impedes his attempt to evoke a credible mysticism.]

Mr. L. H. Myers, British author of the highly regarded trilogy, The Root and the Flower, writes with very great distinction but [is] … in search of a religion. [In Strange Glory] Mr. Myers' … writing is fastidious and economical …, yet his emotional effects are disproportionately massive. The narrative pattern would stand out from any array of...

(The entire section is 755 words.)

L. P. Hartley (essay date 1943)

SOURCE: Introduction to The Near and the Far, Containing "The Root and the Flower" & "The Pool of Vishnu" by L. H. Myers, 1943. Reprint by Jonathan Cape, 1956, pp. iv-ix.

[In the following essay, Hartley asserts that Myers's endorsement of communism rendered The Pool of Vishnu more reductive and didactic than The Near and the Far, Prince Jali, and Rajah Amar.]

L. H. Myers's tetralogy, The Near and the Far, is a unique work: there is nothing like it in the field of English fiction. Nor does it markedly resemble, except in general style and in having a philosophic intention, any of his other works. It comes nearest, perhaps, to The...

(The entire section is 2430 words.)

Orville Prescott (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: "Four Great Novels," in In My Opinion: An Inquiry into the Contemporary Novel, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1952, pp. 235-48.

[In the following excerpt, Prescott praises the philosophical seriousness and the stylistic accessibility of The Root and the Flower.]

[L. H. Myers' The Root and the Flower] is a novel of contemplation instead of action, a philosophical novel instead of an historical one. Its nobility lies in the ethical doctrine which is its conclusion and in the idealism of the quest for that doctrine which runs through all of the long work.

The Root and the Flower is an omnibus volume which contains four separate...

(The entire section is 851 words.)

L. A. G. Strong (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: "Notes on Four Contemporary Writers," in Personal Remarks, Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1953, pp. 193-209.

[In the following excerpt, Strong offers a brief survey of Myers's career, commending the maturity and insight that, in his view, distinguish The Root and the Flower.]

It may seem odd to call contemporary a writer who is dead and whose most important work dealt with a life immeasurably remote from ours. Yet the true test of contemporaneity is that a book shall be timeless, and therefore as true today as it was when it was written and when it was imagined. Provided it comes from a deep enough level, it will deal with what is essential and permanent in...

(The entire section is 1905 words.)

G. H. Bantock (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: "Strange Glory, " in L. H. Myers: A Critical Study, University College and Jonathan Cape, 1956, pp. 16-27.

[In the following excerpt, Bantock maintains that while Strange Glory demonstrates Myers's interest in both mysticism and social reform, the novelist explores the former more thoroughly in this work.]

Strange Glory is the shortest of Myers's books. Coming between The Root and the Flower and The Pool of Vishnu, it is the most romantic of his works and reveals more clearly, perhaps, than any of his others the strain of mysticism in him. It deals more explicitly with those transcendental standards by which our...

(The entire section is 5391 words.)

R. P. Blackmur (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: "Notes on the Novel: 1936," in The Expense of Greatness, Peter Smith, 1958, 176-98.

[In the following excerpt, Blackmur criticizes Myers for expounding rather than dramatizing his themes in The Root and the Flower.]

[L. H. Myers' trilogy, The Root and the Flower,] addressed avowedly to readers in the modern predicament, states its theme of the moral sensibility on the spiritual plane, and the twin theme of character-discrimination on the social plane—in terms conscientiously removed as far as possible from the social, economic, political, and religious predicament of his audience. The action takes place in sixteenth-century India and its movement is...

(The entire section is 689 words.)

B. S. Gupta (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "L. H. Myers's Treatment of Buddhism in The Near and the Far," in Revue des langues vivantes, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, 1971, pp. 64-74.

[In the following essay, Gupta praises the accurate and sympathetic understanding of Buddhism evident in Myers's The Near and the Far.]

Rajah Amar, one of the major characters in The Near and the Far, is a Buddhist, while Sita, his wife is a Christian. Critics of Myers have recognised that it is their negation and affirmation of world and life respectively that marks the difference between the Eastern and the Western views of life. But no notice has been taken of Myers's handling of the Buddhist tradition itself. The...

(The entire section is 4425 words.)

Robert Grant (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Art versus Ideology: The Case of L. H. Myers," in The Cambridge Quarterly, Vol. VI, No. 3, 1975, pp. 214-40.

[In the following excerpt, Grant attempts to explain how Myers's novels, widely acclaimed during the thirties, have become unfamiliar to most contemporary readers.]

To most modern readers the novelist L. H. Myers is little more than a name. The novels are unread; and apart from a well-known dictum about the 'spiritual vulgarity' of the age, his sole memorials are by other hands: a handful of reviews, the odd footnote, a few brief if appreciative mentions in literary histories, and a couple of short books. Yet he was a serious novelist of the inter-war...

(The entire section is 10793 words.)