L. H. Myers Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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."