19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, No 12 (2011)

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Subliminal Histories: Psychological Experimentation in the Poetry and Poetics of Frederic W. H. Myers

Helen Groth


 The pursuit of poetry and the new science of the mind were inseparable strands of the seminal work of the late nineteenth-century poet, psychological and psychical researcher Frederic W. H. Myers.  An early passion for classical prosody translated in later life into a complex, nuanced poetry devoted to the performative externalization of intense psychological experiences of various kinds. Myers was a founding member of the Society for Psychical Research and co-authored the two-volume study of ghost sightings, Phantasms of the Living (1886).  He also conducted extensive research into trance mediumship, telepathy and automatic writing, immersed himself in contemporary continental work on hypnosis, dissociation, and secondary personality and was the first to describe the early work of Pierre Janet and Sigmund Freud in English. This work, in turn, inspired Myers’s seminal theory of the subliminal self that profoundly influenced the psychology of William James.
Myers described himself as a 'minor poet' and an 'amateur savant', the latter referring to his psychical research.  But despite their minor status in the Victorian canon, Myers’s poetry provides a unique record of his concept of poetic language as an ‘intensification’ of private experience, in contrast to the objectivity and empirical drive of scientific language.  Myers was deeply influenced by the poetics of Wordsworth and Tennyson.  What he admired in particular was their capacity to reinvigorate the classical contours of the poetic line with modern rhythms, metaphors, and motifs capable of rendering the invisible or 'subliminal' aspects of everyday life visible, the most important of these being the laying bare of the mind in the act of dreaming, mourning, reverie, and reflection. Myers’s elegiac lyric to Tennyson, for example, written on the occasion of the poet’s death, is a self-conscious stylistic homage to Crossing the Bar.  The motif of the immortal journey of the soul is infused with Myers’s spiritualist faith in the eternal presence of the departed, to quote the final lines of the poem: 'Be stilled an hour, and stir from sleep/Reborn, re-risen, and yet the same.' This resonates with Myers’s belief, stated in the prefatory autobiographical fragment that serves as a prelude to this and the following poems, that 'all things thought and felt, as well as all things done, are somehow photographed imperishably on the Universe, and that my whole past will probably lie open to those with whom I have to do'.
The proposed article will argue that Myers’s poetry and poetics sustains and develops a uniquely nineteenth-century poetic engagement with ‘scientific’ theories of mind that begins with the Romantics he admired.  Poetry created a space for Myers to dramatize the dynamic and evolving dialogue between conscious and unconscious states that extended beyond the confines of the mortal body.  Poetic language evoked and explored the mind of the speaker in a dialogic or confessional style, representing a secret history of subliminal thoughts and impulses, rather than prosaically resolving epistemological paradoxes or diagnosing the various crises that haunt the individual psyche.  This article argues for Myers as a significant, rather than a minor, contributor to the Victorian poetic figuring of the mind as a 'double' phenomenon, to invoke the terminology of the new mental science.  

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