Jill Galvan, “Tennyson’s Ghosts: The Psychical Research Case of the Cross-Correspondences, 1901-c.1936”


The cross-correspondences are a well-known episode in the history of psychical research, a field that arose in the late Victorian period and was devoted to the scientific investigation of paranormal phenomena. Extending over three decades, this case was a study of possible communication from the other world. Psychical researchers collected and compared thousands of automatic writings (texts supposedly channeled unconsciously and authored by the spirits) that, while generated by several mediums, all seemed to cohere, as if spiritually orchestrated, in their tightly corresponding allusions to classical and literary lore. This essay chronicles the origins of and people involved with the cross-correspondences, together with their two most significant alleged spirit communications, the “Palm Sunday” and “Plan” messages. It then goes on to examine the patterns of allusion in the automatic writing, in order to claim the key role of Victorian poetry as constructive material: the messages, as deduced by psychical researchers, appear to be built on the stories and characters of writers like Alfred Tennyson. It was arguably this appeal to familiar literary elements of the previous century that seemed to bring the ghosts in the case to life; thus a literary analysis of the cross-correspondences can help us to understand their power to move their investigators to belief. On this reading, the cross-correspondences, though contemporaneous with the rise of modernism and with events like the Great War, are clearly a part of the “long nineteenth century.” As such they usefully emphasize the fluidity of history itself, frustrating conventional distinctions between the Victorian and the modern.

Not much can be attempted but hints and previsions—enough for the seeing eye to recognize.
circle or wheel thus
a flaming wheel
do you understand?
I think a
That is not a work of art
Go on
and a Lily
A Palm and a Lily—first the Lily and then the Palm. . . . Well go on—Associations of ideas—Patines of pure gold—do you understand?
A fern delicate in its earliest green—dark stemmed, a maiden hair fern
Oh I can’t get it right—I am so bewildered.
Excalibur and the Maiden under a lake. . . .
All this is part of the whole . . . the seven stars and the seven pillars in the House of Wisdom. Such a strange sweet link.
This is not as confused as you think.

–Automatic writing by the medium Winifred Coombe-Tennant (1915)[1]

Portrait of Myers

Figure 1: Portrait of Frederic Myers

In January 1901, the death of Frederic W. H. Myers set in motion events that would prove an enduring fascination within the field he had helped to pioneer, psychical research. Myers was one of the map iconCambridge scholars who in 1882 co-founded the map iconSociety for Psychical Research (SPR), which aimed to approach the kinds of supernormal phenomena about which Victorians had become so curious—from séances and mesmerism to clairvoyance and (as Myers dubbed it that same year) telepathy—with careful scientific testing and analysis. By the turn of the century, the concerns of psychical research were a familiar, if diversely regarded, part of British culture. Many prominent figures, including scientists, politicians, and authors, had become SPR members. Just after Myers’s death, Margaret Verrall, a friend and neighbor also interested in psychical research, decided to see if, given his deep work on the question of the afterlife, Myers would attempt contact from the other side.[2]  Her method was automatic writing, a common mediumistic activity sometimes involving trance, in which one relinquished control of the writing hand, inviting the spirits to communicate through it.

A couple of years later, Verrall’s daughter, Helen, began producing her own automatic writings. Over in map iconIndia, a woman unknown to the Verralls, Alice Fleming, was engaging in the same practice. Fleming—mediumistic alias “Mrs. Holland” (and Rudyard Kipling’s sister)—took inspiration from Myers’s influential, posthumously published Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death (1903). More traumatic events led to the mediumship around this time of a Welshwoman, Winifred Coombe-Tennant (“Mrs. Willett”). In 1908, she wrote to ask Margaret Verrall, an acquaintance about whose psychical attempts she had heard, to try to communicate with her daughter, who had just died at eighteen months. Soon after, though, Coombe-Tennant herself began automatic writing on a regular basis.

The efforts of each of these four (more or less geographically separated) “automatists,” along with those of the American professional medium Leonora Piper in map iconBoston, came to the attention of SPR investigators into automatic writing. What soon made Piper, Coombe-Tennant, Fleming, and the Verralls’ cumulative writings, or “scripts,” extraordinary to investigators was that ideas, images, and symbols seemed to span them, interweaving the women’s individual productions with one another.[3] Hence arose the case of the cross-correspondences, which eventually comprised more than 3,000 scripts, generated over the course of more than three decades. Writing in 1982, the centenary of the SPR’s founding, Alan Gauld called the cross-correspondences “undoubtedly the most extensive, the most complex, and the most puzzling of all ostensible attempts by deceased persons to manifest purpose, and in so doing to fulfil their overriding purpose of proving their survival” (77).

Composing the patterns of correspondence across the scripts were often Greek and Latin phrasings. Additionally, there were many allusive fragments—piecemeal quotations and other hints of classical or literary texts. These allusions could be more or less obscure or convoluted and were painstakingly interpreted by the case’s investigators. As they determined, for example, Coombe-Tennant’s above quoted script—a kind of collapsed dialogue with her purported spirit sources—points to King Arthur and the Lady or “Maiden” of the Lake, who, in Alfred Tennyson’s twelve-book epic, Idylls of the King (1857-88), bestows the sword Excalibur upon Arthur and later retrieves it at his death. And such moments were echoed in Arthurian, specifically Tennysonian, references in the scripts of the other mediums.

In another instance, the oft-cited “Hope, Star, and Browning” correspondence, three of the mediums generated scripts that seemed to cohere, among other respects, in their allusions to Robert Browning’s poetry. First, Margaret Verrall wrote a script mentioning “anagram” and containing the phrases “rats star stars” and “tears stare,” along with a second script with the word “Aster,” which is both Greek for star and another anagram for tears and stare. Additionally, this second script contained a phrase beginning with the Greek word for passion and continuing, “the hope that leaves the earth for sky—Abt Vogler for earth too hard that found itself or lost itself—in the sky.” The investigators took the phrase to be an allusion to Browning’s “Abt Vogler” (1864), specifically to line 78, “The passion that left the ground to lose itself in the sky”; the script substitutes Browning’s original skyward “passion” with “hope.” Then, a couple of weeks later, a script by Piper asked if Margaret Verrall had gotten the message about “Hope Star and Browning.” Around the same time, Helen Verrall received a couple of scripts that each mentioned  “star” and featured a drawing of one, as well as alluded to Browning’s “Pied Piper of Hamelin” (1842), and one of these scripts also offered anagrams for star in “arts” and “rats.”[4]

The Arthurian and “Hope Star and Browning” anecdotes highlight a particular kind of allusive borrowing in the cross-correspondences: when not referring to classical tropes or texts, the scripts especially often referred to poetry of the nineteenth century. That redolence is strong enough to remind us that, while the scripts continued almost until the verge of World War II, they began when another era had barely passed. Drawing so extensively on the nineteenth century as to seem born out of it, the case of the cross-correspondences commingles the temporal categories that normally define history. As an event to be chronicled, moreover, the case exceeds the disciplinary category of history itself, since it is oriented around a type of document rife with allusion and symbolic play. The scripts exercised all their investigators’ skills in linguistic and figural interpretation, and they invite the same kind of scrutiny from those who study them now.

The case of the cross-correspondences was a simultaneously historical and literary event and one best grasped within its simultaneously modern and Victorian contexts. Approaching it as such, this essay analyzes the scripts’ substance, and thus the substance of the spirits themselves, proposing that certain nineteenth-century texts did not simply betoken but actually gave credible form to—by supplying the character outlines and narrative communications of—these spirits. Identifying this literary essence is important, in turn, for thinking about how the scripts worked, conceptually and emotionally, on the investigators who studied them. The cross-correspondences grew out of a turn-of-the-century moment in British culture when the poetic voices of the nineteenth century could still seem relevant to the first-generation psychical researchers who interpreted them. That is, these voices were still affecting enough to seem to evoke beings from another world.  Before exploring the literary grounds of the case, however, I offer a fuller sketch of the people involved in it, its basis in psychical research, and the overall messages deduced from the scripts.

A Paradigmatic Case in Psychical Research

The cross-correspondences are a monument to the patient inquiry and copious data collection that marked psychical research as an empirical, relatively rule-bound response to weird occurrences, in contrast to the zealous rushes to judgment of the spiritualists, those true believers in the séance. The researchers in the case—Eleanor Sidgwick, her brother Gerald W. Balfour, Oliver Lodge, J. G. Piddington, and Alice Johnson—were key figures within the SPR: all eventually served terms as President except for Johnson, who served terms as Secretary and Research Officer. In more general terms, too, these were socially and intellectually respectable individuals. Lodge, for example, was a well-known physicist and a key contributor to the invention of the wireless. Sidgwick and Balfour came from an aristocratic family; she was an accomplished mathematician, while he had a solid scholarly background in the classics.[5]

Notably the psychical-research credentials of the investigators were roughly paralleled by those of the apparent spirits, who likewise formed a kind of group. This handful of spirits was headed by Frederic Myers (thus answering Margaret Verrall’s original query) and SPR co-founders Edmund Gurney (d. 1888) and Henry Sidgwick (Eleanor’s late husband, d. 1900). In fact the scripts were taken to be these men’s continuation of their SPR work, the rationalist probing of psychical matters, from the other side. In Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, Myers had conjectured that the best proof of immortality would result not from a lone spirit but instead from a collaborative endeavor; now just this kind of endeavor seemed represented in the multiple spirit presences conveyed in the scripts. Moreover, these presences often helpfully pointed to their procedure, directing the researchers’ efforts to understand their massive design.

The best evidence in the case was judged to lie in highly complementary, or “complex,” correspondences—the ones that were more than simple one-to-one matches across scripts. In the complex type of correspondence, each script fragment constituted a piece of a “jigsaw puzzle,” wherein any two pieces were not only insignificant each on its own but also seemed disconnected from one another, yet made sense once a subsequent one was adjoined to them, producing a “coherent picture” out of all of them (Saltmarsh 34). The puzzle model was vital because it helped to exclude the explanation of telepathy among the living, which, following certain experiments, many psychical researchers treated as an established phenomenon.[6]  Whereas a straightforward, one-to-one correspondence might potentially be explained by mere thought transference (most obviously from one automatist to another), a more interlocking structure implied an external, probably spiritual presence coordinating the automatists’ individual efforts.

The Messages

As the interpreters eventually theorized, the spirits did not just intend to prove postmortem survival. On one level, constituting what we might call the case’s meta-message, the fact of the many correspondences was, indeed, meaningful in and of itself, transmitting the reality of a spirit world. But on another level, the correspondences functioned mainly as raw material for conveying more pointed messages to the mortal realm. Over time two such messages consumed the interpreters’ attention, one having quite personal, the other world-historical, importance. Yet each was so entangled with the private affairs of living individuals (besides involving them in the suspect territory of the séance) as to be left out of occasional dispatches about the cross-correspondences to the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (PSPR), and in fact to warrant great secrecy for many years.

It was not until 1960 that the first of these scriptural concerns, the “Palm Sunday” message, became public knowledge, when Jean Balfour—Gerald’s daughter-in-law, and in later years a confidante of the interpreting coterie (some of whom continued to mull over the scripts long after the mediums’ productions had tapered off)[7]—released a retrospective account in the PSPR. As she revealed, the scripts had already been going on for a while when, in 1912, the researchers concluded that many of the allusions had all along referred to two specific people, one dead, the other living—the first, Mary Lyttelton, who had succumbed to typhus on Palm Sunday, 1875; the second, the politician Arthur James Balfour, brother of Gerald and Eleanor. As one of the spirit group, Lyttelton was attempting to contact Arthur Balfour, and this communication amounted to what Jean Balfour dubbed, in the title of her account, a “love story” transcending life and death. Having grown closer to Lyttelton over the years, Arthur Balfour had been near proposing to her when she died; her goal now was to communicate her own affections to him. None of the mediums knew of Lyttelton and Arthur Balfour’s past relationship, making otherworldly intervention more probable. The scripts’ message was encoded within a skein of repeated symbolic references to the two principals. Lyttelton was figured for instance as a Palm Maiden (signifying the day of her passing), Dante’s Beatrice (whose “emerald eyes” stood for the ring in which Lyttelton was buried), and the ancient queen Berenice (who dedicated her hair to a temple and thus suggested Arthur Balfour’s preservation of a lock of Lyttelton’s hair). Symbols for Arthur Balfour included a loyal knight, the Idylls’ King Arthur, and bits from Tennyson’s Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington (1852), who had been Balfour’s godfather and namesake.

The publicizing of the second message occurred much later, in 2008, after Archie E. Roy (himself a psychical researcher) was entrusted by Jean Balfour’s daughter with access to the mammoth archive (scripts, memoranda, and letters) surrounding the cross-correspondences. Roy’s The Eager Dead gives us, at last, stunning insight into the “Plan.”[8] Crucial to this part of the case was the automatist Winifred Coombe-Tennant, who, like Leonora Piper, traveled to England for investigations with the psychical researchers. Beginning in 1910 in “sittings” (channeling sessions) with Piper as medium, sittings overseen by Oliver Lodge and at which Coombe-Tennant was also present, the spirit of Edmund Gurney declared his love for Coombe-Tennant, and he asked that she give birth to his child, in an act of what the spirits termed “psychic paternity” (Lodge qtd. in Roy 283). Further, this was to be no ordinary child, but rather one “possess[ing] a remarkable personality—a genius in fact of high order” (Lodge qtd. in Roy 276): as the scripts ultimately communicated, the child would be a messiah, inaugurating an era of supreme justice and international peace, following a period of wars. The Plan was a shared enterprise within the communicating spirit group, directed by Gurney and Francis Maitland Balfour (d. 1882), yet another Balfour sibling. Though conceived through normal procreative processes, the infant would be the product of the spirit world. Gurney would be the psychical father, and Francis Balfour, an embryologist in life, would design his or her biological identity. The communicators indicated their hand in Coombe-Tennant’s other children as well, providing a rationale for the tragic death of her toddler: in Daphne—as another later intimate of the interpreting group summarized the “script doctrine”—“soul outweighed body” (W. H. Salter, Helen Verrall’s husband, qtd. in Roy 453).

In a sense this request for a spiritually formed child merely took to an extreme the gendered terms of mediumship. Women, insistently defined by the Victorians as the more passive and nervously responsive sex, had long been preferred as “sensitives” or receptive conduits of the other world.[9] Nonetheless, in a memorandum written soon after the request, Coombe-Tennant expressed much surprise and reluctance about the spirits’ wish. She noted that she had considered herself done with the hard business of pregnancy and labor, and continued: “There has been up to this date . . . no opportunity of any sort for conception & I do not think that the idea of further children has occurred to my husband” (qtd. in Roy 273). (She was in her thirties; her husband was nearing sixty.) Notwithstanding these objections, on 9 April 1913, she gave birth to a son, Augustus Henry, who would in the years to come be closely watched by her as well as the investigators as the possible fulfillment of the spirits’ scheme.

But the history of the Plan grows odder still, and it is at this juncture that the cross-correspondences potentially challenge the belief of even the committed spiritualist. This is not simply because Augustus Henry Coombe-Tennant, despite going on to lead a rather remarkable life,[10] was never finally judged to have realized the scripts’ prophecy. Rather, the prophecy itself becomes occluded by all too human considerations: Henry’s father was in fact Gerald Balfour. Balfour eventually became a main investigator of Coombe-Tennant’s mediumship, and she was a regular visitor to his home. Their affair went on for about a decade, estranging him from his wife during that time. And yet whatever the knowledge or suspicions among the interpreting group—particularly given the previously acknowledged “difficulty” of the Coombe-Tennants’ “domestic arrangements” (Lodge qtd. in Roy 283)—Henry’s ambiguous paternity did not, it seems, necessarily preclude hope for his messianic future. J.G. Piddington, for one, was many years later still persuaded of the prophecy.[11] Even Gerald Balfour obviously took his numerous sittings with “Mrs. Willett” very seriously[12] and, as his daughter-in-law remarked, maintained “tremendous convictions” in the Plan to his last days (J. Balfour qtd. in Roy 428).

Ghosts Made of Poetry

In spite of all, the scripts’ prediction, like the Palm Sunday message, was profoundly resonant within the interpreting coterie. Obviously this was partly due to the logic of the correspondences, which seemed to confirm the spirits’ authenticity. But the resonance also likely had something to do with the nature of the scripts’ allusions.

Here is where it is useful to turn to a literary historical perspective. When the cross-correspondences have been viewed at all from such a perspective, they have usually been classified alongside modernist developments.[13]  The classification makes sense given the dating of the scripts, coupled with their difficult and fractured form and the great intellectual labor, including the study of arcane texts and classical languages, that they required; certainly it is hard to read them without thinking of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922).[14] But the tendency of the allusions themselves indicates that the case belongs instead, or also, to the “long nineteenth century.” The scripts abound with poets like Percy Bysshe Shelley, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, and Arthur Clough. An early commentator noted that Robert Browning and Alfred Tennyson especially cropped up “very frequently” (Dallas 134). Most fitting to the case were the repeated quotations from famous nineteenth-century poems dealing with spirituality or the afterlife, like Browning’s “Abt Vogler” and Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, In Memoriam A.H.H. (1850), and “Crossing the Bar” (1889).

In turn, the scripts’ overall pattern of reference reminds us of the case’s, including its players’, close ties to a prior age. Most of the original investigators were born in or before the 1850s. Three of the five central mediums (Margaret Verrall, Piper, and Fleming) were born in the 1850s and 1860s. All the alleged spirits lived out their lives in the Victorian period. Additionally, the cruxes of both the Palm Sunday and the Plan messages were in place by 1912, not long after the close of this period.

Many aspects of this event were defined by the nineteenth century, most conspicuously by that period’s literature—and so too, arguably, were the spirits themselves, their very possibility, defined in this way. In the cross-correspondences, as in automatic writing generally, but more strikingly here because more pervasively, the other world was a textual phenomenon.[15] The ghosts in the case amounted to words on a page, words of nineteenth-century, often Victorian, poetry. But what is more, these ghosts and their messages, as deduced by the investigators, seem actually formed out of this literature—as if certain poetry gave rise to them, determining their shape. Put from a slightly different angle: one of the reasons the researchers ultimately responded to the scripts’ spirits as real is because, however imperceptibly, certain familiar poems imaginatively consolidated the contents of the spirits’ communications, imbuing them with a recognizable fullness.

This situation most obviously suggests itself in the Palm Sunday scripts. The scenario they were supposed to describe—of a young woman preoccupied in heaven by thoughts of her lover on earth—noticeably resembles the narrative in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “The Blessed Damozel” (1850). In fact, this poem (its fragments) featured prominently in the scripts and was taken as a key symbol of Mary Lyttelton. For example, from Coombe-Tennant’s script in the epigraph above, “seven stars” was seen as a reference to a description of the damozel in the first stanza of Rossetti’s poem: “the stars in her hair were seven” (6). The poem’s next lines depict the damozel’s garment: “Her robe, ungirt from clasp to hem, / No wrought flowers did adorn” (7-8). Later, Rossetti has her peer searchingly down to earth:

From the fixed place of heaven she saw
Time like a pulse shake fierce
Through all the worlds. Her gaze still strove
Within the gulf to pierce
Its path; and now she spoke as when
The stars sang in their spheres. (49-54)

In another script in the case, “Gurney” is hectoring in his attempts to channel these two moments of Rossetti’s poem through Coombe-Tennant:

Star bedecked the head—the broidered robe—the stars singing in their spheres.
You have made a mistake about the robe, but never mind—I want a simple sentence known to you and you will not write it. The love that waits beyond Death
Say that—try again—she looked long, gazing, gazing—piercing the distance with eager eyes, that is better . . . . (qtd. in J. Balfour 112-13)

The investigators openly acknowledged “The Blessed Damozel” as a scriptural symbol for Mary Lyttelton, but they may have been unaware of the extent to which this poem helped them to conceive of her as a figure in the afterlife. Reflecting on how the scripts might have been studied, one imagines a subtle dynamic between actual allusion and jogged recollection—between, on one hand, the scripts’ explicit yet fleeting references to Rossetti’s poem and, on the other hand, the tacit force of the investigators’ more complete knowledge of it. This dynamic would have supplemented the scripts’ meager offerings, giving them amplitude, lending the spirit they pointed to a richer presence. Seen in that light, “The Blessed Damozel” would in effect have conjured Mary Lyttelton.

But it was apparently another poem, “Guinevere” (1859) from Idylls of the King, that more completely fleshed out Lyttelton’s personality within the other world. Tennyson’s epic spins out the tale of Arthur’s rise to kingship over a war-torn, beast- and heathen-ridden realm, his creation of a Round Table of loyal knights on principles of Christian nobility, and the kingdom’s ultimate fall back into savagery, punctuated by Arthur’s death; and the book “Guinevere” recounts a principal factor in this demise, the queen’s infidelity with her husband’s best knight, Lancelot. The affair turns Arthur and Lancelot against each other and causes the other knights to take sides, devastating the unity and moral clarity on which the Round Table was founded. It was obvious to the investigators that a 1912 Palm Sunday script containing the phrase “High stainless passionless QUOTATION” referred to the moment in “Guinevere” when the queen remembers her unpropitious first impression of her future husband as “High, self-contain’d, and passionless” (403).[16] Yet how such a reference fit symbolically into Lyttelton’s message to Arthur Balfour was unclear. In later years, however, Gerald Balfour ventured an explanation of this, together with certain repeated mentions of “recantation.”[17]  Lyttelton had been a vivacious woman with multiple suitors—another man, too, had practically been her fiancé—while Arthur Balfour had been a reticent lover; given those circumstances, as Jean Balfour relayed in a letter to Piddington in 1944,

G.W.B. thinks that [Lyttelton’s] temperament had a strong need of physical demonstration, and that is where the simile of Guinevere is not out of place. He thinks that the man to whom she had been engaged understood and appealed to her nature better than A.J.B. ever did—‘a lesser man,’ (a sort of Launcelot). . . . G.W.B. believes she must have thought [Arthur Balfour] ‘high, self-contained and passionless.’

But, just before she became ill, it seems that she was beginning to think of A.J.B. in a different way, & to perceive the deep strength of his feelings and the essential fineness of his nature. I said ‘As if at last she was ripening into a sort of spiritual maturity?’ and he agreed, and added that he thought she had begun to compare her lovers, & the different kinds of love. ‘We needs must love the highest when we see it,’ fits in here. The previous lovers (‘not Launcelot nor another’) had never touched the spiritual fires which in one of her ardent temperament would be just as strong as physical passion, and G.W.B. believes that it needed the crisis of death to fully awaken this new love . . . . (qtd. in Roy 422-23)

By the end of Tennyson’s “Guinevere,” the queen, humbled by the effects of her transgression, recants her love for Lancelot and finally recognizes Arthur as the spiritually finer prize: “now I see thee what thou art, / Thou art the highest and most human too / . . . / We needs must love the highest when we see it, / Not Lancelot nor another” (643-56). Lyttelton’s experiences are mapped precisely onto this story of comparison and regret, indeed onto the specific lines by which it is narrated. What is particularly startling is that Gerald Balfour thus draws on Tennyson’s poem to transform the known earthly identity of Lyttelton—to reconstruct her, on her new spiritual plane, as neither shallow nor capricious but rather a right-minded, romantically constant individual.

If Idylls of the King served thus in the Palm Sunday message, it may have even more crucially informed the Plan. In Tennyson’s epic, King Arthur is a would-be savior, emerging, possibly supernaturally, to remedy social and moral turmoil with Christian leadership. That such messianic-cum-Arthurian lore conceptually organized the scripts’ perceived prophecy is indicated by Jean Balfour’s discussion of their “Holy Grail references” (qtd. in Roy 428).  For Gerald, as she noted in another letter, allusions in the scripts to the grail denoted those historical periods marked by unusually numerous births of “geniuses, or men of special calibre,” “when the invasion of spiritual influence into our world became especially compelling” (qtd. in Roy 428). A letter by Piddington indicates he similarly believed the Grail pattern was in part “a Messianic symbol” associated with the “Child” in the Plan (qtd. in Roy 421).

More specifically, Augustus Henry Coombe-Tennant’s presumed origins seem contoured on, perhaps legitimized by, the Idylls, specifically the epic’s opening book, “The Coming of Arthur” (1869). First, there is the matter of King Arthur’s dubious birth, a chief subject of this book. Arthur’s peers question his political reputation, for, while he may be a king’s son, he may be the product of a rape, or instead be the son of an old knight, or have simply swept forth from the waves of the sea. One may wonder if there was something inspiring or reassuring in the poem’s vision of a man who rises to spiritual leadership despite murky, even sordid issues of parentage.

Second, the coronation scene in “The Coming of Arthur” conspicuously foreshadows the framing of the Plan. As Arthur’s (presumed) sister remembers later, when his knights stood before his holy dais, their eyes reflected

A momentary likeness of the King;
And ere it left their faces, thro’ the cross
And those around it and the Crucified,
Down from the casement over Arthur smote
Flame-colour, vert and azure, in three rays,
One falling upon each of three fair queens
Who stood in silence near his throne, the friends
Of Arthur, gazing on him, tall, with bright
Sweet faces, who will help him at his need. (270-78)

The three mystically silent “fair queens”—illuminated in this passage by the colors of the stained glass window behind Arthur’s throne—reappear to guide the king into the afterworld in the final book, “The Passing of Arthur” (1869). There as here, their apparitional presence reinforces the sanctified nature of the King’s reign (366-80).

In a memorandum written during the interval between “Gurney’s” request and her pregnancy, Winifred Coombe-Tennant describes an annunciating dream that distinctly recalls Arthur’s mysterious attendants: “Three figures, which somehow I took to be three women of a Godess-y [sic] description, were grouped together, and on the ground in front of them were lying things on which there was writing.”  She goes on to recount that these scattered “things” (presumably the scripts) were gathered by many individuals, except for one they seemed unpermitted to touch, until “suddenly” a “Majestic Figure” appeared and picked it up. The figure then told her that “when I next saw it it would be in the likeness of a human Babe and that what was written on the thing picked up was a destiny that it should come into the world through me” (qtd. in Roy 287-88).

Feeling for the Spirit

At this point it may seem inevitable to ask what the source of the cross-correspondences’ many intersections with Victorian poetry was. Canny mediums? Over-reading interpreters? Or, just possibly, ghost-bricoleurs making the most of available spiritual concepts?  But the question is harder to answer than it may appear. As Bette London has written, automatic writing thoroughly disturbs our unitary model of authorship, both its nominal and practical parameters, in that it diffuses textual creation between the medium, the person sitting with her (who was considered her facilitator, for example dialoguing with her, prompting her words), and the spirit (whether seen as a real or only apparent entity). The site of authorship seems particularly unclear if one presumes, as psychical researchers did, the important role of the medium’s subconscious or “subliminal” mind as the throughway of the message (London 150-209).[18]

In any event, my own interest lies not in sorting out responsibility for the scripts’ literary infusions, but instead in how these help us to understand this case as a compelling, personally felt occurrence. Scholarly accounts have often treated the cross-correspondences as an intellectual exercise—as a modernist enigma, or as merely evidentiary—obscuring the fact that for all the erudition and empiricism of the interpreters, the scripts came down, finally, to a conversation across the grave. Like most matters of spiritual belief, this one must have been at least in some degree a search for plenitude and a reckoning of the heart. I’d propose that along with the more direct textual comments of “Myers,” “Gurney,” and the others, the ready-made Victorian characters and plots went some way to compensating for the scripts’ off-putting, disjointed form, endowing the spirits’ messages with depth and life.

John Gray underscores that the case’s participants enjoyed a broad, easy familiarity with the scripts’ allusive texture that could hardly occur today:

To an extent that is unimaginable in twenty-first-century Britain, the automatists and the SPR investigators were joined together in a common culture. Some had a classical education, others had not, but for all of them the classical tags and literary allusions that fill the scripts were part of a shared lexicon. Stories and phrases from ancient map iconGreece and map iconRome, the King James Bible and Shakespeare, together with the poetry of Wordsworth, Browning and Tennyson, shaped how those who produced and read the scripts communicated with one another. Not only did they understand the allusions in the same way, they associated them with the same images. These signs and symbols were part of a collective unconscious of a kind that, in Britain at any rate, no longer exists. (92)[19]

These observations can help us to think further about the nature of belief in the case. The idea of a “shared lexicon” or “collective unconscious” suggests for each participant an intimate storehouse of knowledge. Thus, we might go on to surmise, the ability to see a message in the scripts had to do not just with simple factual awareness but also with a more complex affective attunement. Important in this connection is the literary device so essential to the cross-correspondences, the allusion. As Joseph Pucci argues, the meaning of an allusion never derives wholly from the intention of the author, either of the alluding text or of the text alluded to; rather, it is the individual reader’s “subjective, contingent” response, formed out of the ideas and “desires” he or she imports, that reconciles the two texts and puts the allusion into full play (28). Akin to the séance revenant, an allusion is a fleeting call from the past that calls on the reader’s particular “sensitivity” to register within its new environment. It is not hard to imagine that the scripts’ Victorian fragments spoke especially powerfully to someone like Gerald Balfour, who was in his late forties when the case began in 1901.

Tennyson’s Modern Spirituality

Nonetheless, it may be tempting to dismiss the scripts’, especially the Plan’s, various Tennysonian outlines as atavistic, as a sentimental response to world problems hopelessly out of sync with the burgeoning modernist movement’s more demanding explorations of war, social disunity, and moral confusion. However, such an assessment risks underestimating Tennyson’s own interest in the course of modernity, as well as how this tinges and complicates his delineations of the spirit. Even his “idylls” have been read as a veiled reflection on his age’s own bewildering cultural developments, including the rise of Darwinism and its assertion of human and animal kinship: this kinship for example is literalized in the sad fate of Arthur’s kingdom, which “[r]eels back into the beast, and is no more” (“The Passing of Arthur” 26).[20] A precursor to Darwin’s evolutionism shades the spiritual meditations in Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H., a long series of lyrics triggered by the untimely death of the poet’s best friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. In Memoriam ends by reaffirming the Christian faith and Hallam’s life beyond death; yet at odds with this resolution are the poem’s struggles throughout with the implications of contemporary science, particularly the work of geologist Charles Lyell, who, in describing gradual, ages-old processes of erosion and extinction, undermined the idea of a stable, divine creation and of humans’ privileged place within it. (See, for example, Martin Meisel, “On the Age of the Universe.”) Spiritual doubt saturates In Memoriam, focused most notoriously in its image of a species unprotected by a loving God, prey instead to the forces of the material environment, or “Nature, red in tooth and claw” (56.15).[21]

All this is to posit that within the scripts, Tennyson represents an engagement with cultural change and with both the known and the unknown, not a denial of these tensions. His continuing relevance even at the turn the century was clearly credited, and grandly envisioned, by Frederic Myers, that founding father of psychical research (a field, it is worth recalling, that prided itself on its desire to move forward with modernity, especially with modern science). In the essay “Tennyson as Prophet,” first published in 1889 and reprinted in his 1893 collection Science and a Future Life, Myers declares poetry a chief source of ongoing spiritual wisdom—“the true poet comes nearer to inspiration than any prophet to whom we can hope to listen now” (162)—and lauds Tennyson (whom he knew personally) above all, as affording spiritual insights that work within, rather than simply against, the grain of scientific discovery.[22] For Myers, Tennyson’s poetry frankly, admirably acknowledges empiricist challenges to faith in a keynote of anguish. Yet what is also admirable is that the poet nonetheless conveys his intuition of our otherworldly persistence and that this intuition itself ratifies Myers’s own brand of psychical science: Tennyson’s inspired reveries suggest Myers’s notion of the subliminal self, a subconscious and spiritually receptive aspect of the mind.[23]  Another essay in Science and a Future Life, “Modern Poets and Cosmic Law,” first published in 1893, the year after Tennyson’s death, elaborates the homage to him, implicitly turning on another of Myers’s theories: that the subliminal mind’s perceptions give us psychological evidence that humans are inherently fitted for lives reaching well beyond earthly existence and accordingly that evolution is a terrestrial as well as spiritual process.[24]  This more comprehensive idea of evolution Myers links to “cosmic law”—which he holds to be on a par with already accepted scientific laws—and Tennyson, he says, was well aware of these universal principles. So had William Wordsworth been, in part, but the temporal intervention of Charles Darwin “enabled the later Laureate to enrich and deepen his predecessor’s conception” (“Modern Poets” 199).

In short, Myers exalted Tennyson (who became an honorary member of the SPR in the 1880s)[25] as a cutting-edge voice in explorations of the spirit. In this poet’s works lay “the best haven for men far more numerous and in far worse straits, at our troubled century’s close,” than even in Wordsworth’s time (“Modern Poets” 198). Considering Myers’s reputation, together with the multiple intersections of his (after)life with the cross-correspondences—on top of everything else, he had held test sittings with Leonora Piper and was related to Winifred Coombe-Tennant by marriage—we can easily infer that his poetic entryways to views of the other world in general, and his respect for Tennyson in particular, influenced the direction of this case.

Though he focuses on Tennyson’s later works, Myers points to In Memoriam as a major step in the poet’s trajectory to spiritual acumen, finding its fraught consideration of spiritual questions more appropriate to the contemporary or “modern mind” than to the year of its publication, 1850 (“Tennyson as Prophet” 136).[26] In Memoriam was surely canonical to the spirit-probers of the cross-correspondences. Piddington notes in one report that he had “read In Memoriam often” (128, n. 1). More tellingly about the case’s poetic influences, when Coombe-Tennant visited Arthur Balfour in his last ailing months in 1929, this poem—specifically the part in which an entranced Tennyson fuses with Hallam’s soul—proved indispensable to conveying her sense of Mary Lyttelton and others’ hovering presences: “I can only think of one thing that at all describes what I have seen, and that is the section of In Memoriam where the words occur ‘And came on that which is . . .’” (qtd. in J. Balfour 163-64; ellipsis in original).[27]

But especially interesting is the way In Memoriam, in particular its epilogue, anticipates the scientific-cum-messianic promise of the Plan. By its closing lines, Tennyson, as speaker, has returned to a faith in immortality. These lines portray his sister’s wedding day. Picturing her honeymoon, he imagines the light of the moon “touch[ing] with shade the bridal doors, / With tender gloom the roof, the wall” (Epilogue 118), and then, marvelously, the conception of a child from out of the heavens:

A soul shall draw from out the vast
And strike his being into bounds,

And moved thro’ life of lower phrase,
Result in man, be born and think,
And act and love, a closer link
Betwixt us and the crowning race

Of those that, eye to eye, shall look
On knowledge; under whose command
Is Earth and Earth’s, and in their hand
Is Nature like an open book;

No longer half-akin to brute,
For all we thought and loved and did,
And hoped, and suffer’d, is but seed
Of what in them is flower and fruit;

Whereof the man that with me trod
This planet was a noble type
Appearing ere the time was ripe,
That friend of mine who lives in God . . . . (Epilogue 123-40)

The child of Tennyson’s sister will grow “thro’ life of lower phase”—through fetal stages in the womb—and then be born to embody the next “link” in the advance of humanity. By this account, we humans will move steadily farther away from the “brute,” culminating in a “crowning race” that possesses higher “knowledge” and reads “Nature like an open book”; and Arthur Henry Hallam, “the man that with [Tennyson] trod / This planet,” was an anachronism or “noble type” of this revered race. As in Myers’s reading of him, Tennyson subscribes to a concept of spiritual evolution, and like Myers, too (and in a marked difference from Darwin), he sees evolution as necessarily progressive: humans get better and better over time.[28]

But importantly, in doting on Hallam as a harbinger of a wiser future race, In Memoriam’s epilogue may have offered something to the script investigators that Myers’s theory could not: an evocative story, one that captured, concisely yet dramatically and vividly, how the divine promise of a new world order might be predicated on principles of species development. Tennyson, in other words, potentially lessened the abstraction of the scripts’ prophecy of a child at once spiritually and biologically engineered. Arthur Henry notionally paves the way for Augustus Henry. Likewise, the epilogue enfolds bare, wondrous “cosmic law” in the comforting fleshliness of a familiar domestic narrative. In Tennyson’s telling, superior beings and world-transforming events result from ordinary love—through women who become mothers in the usual fashion—and begin, for example, within a space, a honeymoon residence, whose physical surfaces we are invited to picture. Perhaps this scenario extenuated in some immeasurable way the outlandishness of the scripts’ demand for Winifred Coombe-Tennant’s pregnancy.

The Cross-Correspondences and the Long Nineteenth Century

For all the retrospection of the scripts, the case of the cross-correspondences and the people involved with it were not unmoored from twentieth-century concerns. Gerald Balfour stepped back in 1906 from political life, but his brother Arthur—who had been SPR president 1893-94, and who ended up responding favorably to the hypothesis of Mary Lyttelton’s messages—served in several high governmental offices throughout the script years, including that of Prime Minister.[29] Only after her death in 1956 was it publicly disclosed that “Mrs. Willett” had really been Winifred Coombe-Tennant, a politically active woman who had stood for Parliament and been well known to personages like David Lloyd George, who appointed her the first female delegate to the League of Nations.[30] Nor was the researchers’ investigation into the scripts an ideological aberration at the time; on the contrary, it exemplified early twentieth-century pursuits in occultism. The Great War renewed interest in the séance, as many attempted to contact those lost in battle. Raymond (1916), a hugely popular work by the cross-correspondences’ own Oliver Lodge, recorded his spirit messages from his son, who was killed in map iconFlanders (Oppenheim 377; Sword 47). The séance intrigued even modernist writers, who sometimes derided it but in other cases treated it much more seriously. In researches leading to A Vision (1925; rev. 1937), W.B. Yeats—not unlike the interpreters of the Plan—turned to his wife’s automatic writing to make sense of contemporary perplexities and thought he divined a world-shaking prophecy.[31]

Judging by their thick allusiveness to Tennyson and his contemporaries, the cross-correspondences are a phenomenon of the long nineteenth century, but to apply that terminology here is not simply to elongate one historical period (the nineteenth century) at the expense of another (the twentieth). Rather, it is to highlight the messy nature of history, its resistance to anything like clean breaks. The scripts point up the place of modernity in the Victorian past, well before the intense explorations of twentieth-century modernism. And inversely, these documents suggest how familiar consolations, spiritual as well as literary, could continue to serve within new twentieth-century scenes of social complexity.

As part of a transitional moment, though, the scripts—more specifically the personal appeal of their phantoms—may have had a certain shelf life. In a note to herself in 1966, Jean Balfour reflected that the idea of the Plan had seemed less “strange” in the “mental atmosphere” of the century’s first decades, due among other things to another occultist movement of the day, theosophy, which had made the coming of a world savior seem inevitable (qtd. in Roy 493-4).  By a similar logic, we might suppose, by mid-century, the poignancy of the cross-correspondences had been attenuated by a receding feeling for the poetry of another era. In her Palm Sunday report of 1960, Balfour includes an appendix with fuller texts of the poems alluded to in the scripts for the contemporary “reader who may not know his Tennyson or Rossetti as well as those who grew up in the last century” (J. Balfour 113). Even if, as is likely, this helped Balfour’s PSPR audience to understand the case and conclude its validity, reading crib notes for these writers was surely not the same kind of experience as remembering them as living cultural elements, or even as re-encountering the likes of Tennyson as constitutive wisdom in the first formative decades of the SPR. Summoned through literature, history, and the intricate pathways between them, the ghosts of the cross-correspondences could only ever be for Jean Balfour’s readers then, and for us now, at best faded versions of their former selves.

Jill Galvan is an Associate Professor of English at Ohio State University, where she teaches Victorian literature. She is the author of The Sympathetic Medium: Feminine Channeling, the Occult, and Communication Technologies, 1859-1919 (2010). Her articles have examined spiritualism, communications media, and gender in Victorian texts, as well as both Victorian and current ideas of the posthuman. She is currently working on a study of changing forms of literary realism at the turn of the twentieth century.


published July 2012

Galvan, Jill. “Tennyson’s Ghosts: The Psychical Research Case of the Cross-Correspondences, 1901-c.1936.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


Balfour, Jean. “The ‘Palm Sunday’ Case: New Light on an Old Love Story.” Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 52 (1960): 79-267. Print.

Browning, Robert. “Abt Vogler.” 1864. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Carol T. Christ and Catherine Robson. 8th ed. Volume E. New York: Norton, 2006. 1303-05. Print.

Dallas, H.A. Mors Janua Vitae? A Discussion of Certain Communications Purporting to Come from Frederic W. H. Myers. London: Rider, 1910. Print.

Day, Aidan. Tennyson’s Scepticism. Houndmills: Palgrave, 2005. Print.

Galvan, Jill. “The Victorian Post-Human: Information, Transmission, and the Séance.” The Ashgate Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism and the Occult. Ed. Tatiana Kontou and Sarah Willburn. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2012. 79-95. Print.

Gauld, Alan. Mediumship and Survival: A Century of Investigations. London: Heinemann, 1982. Print.

Gibbons, Thomas. “‘The Waste Land’ in Light of the ‘Cross-Correspondence’ Scripts of the Society for Psychical Research.” Yeats Eliot Review 13.1-2: 7-16. Print.

Gray, John. The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death. New York: Farrar, 2011. Print.

Groth, Helen. “Subliminal Histories: Psychological Experimentation in the Poetry and Poetics of Frederic W. H. Myers.” 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century 12 (2011): n. pag. Web. 28 September 2011.

Kontou, Tatiana. Spiritualism and Women’s Writing: From the Fin de Siècle to the Neo-Victorian. Houndmills: Palgrave, 2009. Print.

London, Bette. Writing Double: Women’s Literary Partnerships. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1999. Print.

Luckhurst, Roger. The Invention of Telepathy, 1870-1901. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.

Myers, Frederic W. H. Science and a Future Life, with Other Essays. 2nd ed. London: MacMillan, 1901. Print.

Oppenheim, Janet. The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985. Print.

Owen, Alex. The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989. Print.

Piddington, J. G. “A Series of Concordant Automatisms.” Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 22 (1908): 19-416. Print.

Pucci, Joseph. The Full-Knowing Reader: Allusion and the Power of the Reader in the Western Literary Tradition. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998. Print.

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. “The Blessed Damozel.” 1850. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Carol T. Christ and Catherine Robson. 8th ed. Volume E. New York: Norton, 2006. 1443-47. Print.

Roy, Archie E. The Eager Dead: A Study in Haunting. Sussex: Book Guild, 2008. Print.

Saltmarsh, H.F. Evidence of Personal Survival from Cross-Correspondences. London: Bell, 1938. Print.

Sword, Helen. Ghostwriting Modernism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2002. Print.

Tennyson, Alfred. Tennyson’s Poetry. Ed. Robert W. Hill Jr. New York: Norton, 1999. Print.

Wilson, Leigh. “Dead Letters: Gender, Literary History and the Cross-Correspondences.” Critical Survey, 19.1 (2007): 17-28. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 January 2010.


[1] Qtd. in Balfour 143-44.

[2] My main sources for the details of the cross-correspondences are Balfour, Dallas, Heywood (69-110), Roy, and Saltmarsh.  See Saltmarsh 152-56 for a list of numerous articles on the case in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research.

[3] Noted here are the five principal mediums in the case. Others participated more briefly.

[4] Here I provide only a brief overview of the relevant correspondences in the “Hope, Star, and Browning” incident. For a fuller discussion, see Piddington, especially 59-77.

[5] The medium Margaret Verrall, herself a classicist, also sometimes analyzed the scripts, writing several reports for the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research.

[6] On the rise of telepathy as a pivot point in psychical research, see Luckhurst 60-114.

[7] Given Balfour’s closeness to the case, I use her approximate end date for the scripts (83). Roy records that Piddington, the scripts’ major collator in later years, found them too voluminous by the 1930s and asked the automatists to hold back (401).

[8] I have relied extensively on Roy’s unearthing of events around the Plan and on his transcriptions of related documents. Roy implies the Victorian milieu out of which the cross-correspondences grew, though not the literary associations I’ll focus on here.

[9] On the Victorian gendering of the séance, see Owen.

[10] Augustus Henry Coombe-Tennant escaped a prisoner-of-war camp during World War II; served in several high-stakes military and intelligence roles, including being dropped by parachute behind German lines to help the French resistance during the war; and ultimately converted to Roman Catholicism, becoming a monk and a parish priest.

[11] See his letters from the 1940s, quoted in Roy 402 and 417. These also make clear, though, that he found the success of the spirits’ intentions increasingly doubtful after the rise of World War II.

[12] Note, e.g., his lengthy 1935 report on her mediumship in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research.

[13] See Gibbons; Kontou 46-59; Luckhurst 264-68; Sword 36-37; and Wilson. But intriguingly Kontou also likens the cross-correspondences to fictions of today that recuperate Victorian elements, specifically to A.S. Byatt’s novella The Conjugial Angel (from Angels and Insects [1992]), which, oriented around Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H., itself focuses on ghostly presences intertwining with literature; see Kontou 143-46. As she argues, such “neo-Victorian” writings are “‘textual séances,’ haunted works in which past and present, living and dead are bound together,” and in which revived figures or situations are the “product of an infinity of yearning” (200).

[14] See Gibbons for a detailed comparison with Eliot.

[15] The scripts were often automatic writings, but at other times were transcriptions of the mediums’ oral utterances. Notable are Coombe-Tennant’s “Daylight Impressions” or “D.I.’s,” states unique to her wherein she narrated her acute impressions of the spirits’ thoughts and emotions rather than channeling them directly.

[16] See the fuller script context in Balfour 132.

[17] See Roy 420 for J. G. Piddington’s puzzlement about the “‘recantation’ references.”

[18] As I’ve argued elsewhere, the complexity of the authorship of séance communications, specifically the role of the fallible medium, was a key justification for solecisms in the evidence. At one point Roy himself adopts this defense in declaring the difficulty of “keeping the channel open and getting the message through” and that the cross-correspondences scripts were the result of a “very noisy transmission system” (253). This renders in explicit, modern terms a long-held view of the spirit medium as a kind of technology and of its consequences for communication. On reputed message interference, or “noise,” in this case and in Victorian and turn-of-the-century séance discourse generally, see Galvan.

[19] Gray’s own argument is that the correspondences in the scripts were therefore a gradual, unconscious formation, the product of the collective knowledge of the parties in the case.

[20] See Day 189-90.

[21] On In Memoriam’s engagement with contemporary scientific discourse, see Day 113-38.

[22] On Myers’s friendship with Tennyson, see Gauld 86.

[23] Helen Groth teases out ideas of the subliminal self in Myers’s “Tennyson as Prophet,” proposing that Myers’s psychological theories were inextricable from his aesthetic endeavors as poet and literary critic. See especially Groth 7-9.

[24] Myers works out this relationship between the subliminal self and evolution in, for example, the title essay of his collection, “Science and a Future Life,” especially 35-41.

[25] See Oppenheim 135.

[26] Also on In Memoriam’s value, see Myers’s “Modern Poets” 197 and 203.

[27] See In Memoriam 95.39.  This trance moment and other elements of In Memoriam sections 94 and 95 were also central to the set of scripts Piddington was discussing when he noted his familiarity with the poem. Through these Margaret Verrall was trying to test the validity of Myers’s spirit. See Piddington 107-72.

[28] Tennyson was drawing on the more optimistic developmental theories of Darwin’s predecessor, the biologist Robert Chambers; see Day 134-38.

[29] On the Balfour brothers’ political activities, see Oppenheim 134 and Balfour 99, 104, 158, and 162. On Arthur Balfour’s reaction to the Palm Sunday scripts, see Balfour 162-67.

[30] See Roy 466 on the revelation of “Mrs. Willett’s” identity.

[31] On modernist writers and spiritualism, see Sword. On Yeats’s partnership with his mediumistic wife, see London 179-209.