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John Barlas’s Poetry

CRITICS of the present phase of democracy in England have
remarked that, whatever else it may have produced, it has
not produced poets. The judgment is only partly true. It is
true that the lines on which the ” social question ” is nowadays
argued are largely scientific ; the battle is one of economics rather
than heroics, and the atmosphere of economics is not inspiriting to
singers. Therefore, as might have been expected, song has not
played anything like the same part in the Socialist as in the
Chartist propaganda, or as in the Irish struggle of the Forties ;
there have been no popular song-writers at all comparable to those
who inspired the enthusiasts of half a century ago. On the other
hand it must be remembered that in democratic poetry, even more
than in other poetry, the really original writers—those who aim
at something beyond an expression of the common sentiments of
their comrades—are apt to be unrecognised, or very slowly recog-
nised, by contemporary opinion ; so that the literature of a social
movement still in course of development may turn out to be more
important than at first sight appears.

For example, at the present time, very few of the ” reading
public,” and perhaps not many of the ” leading critics ” (leading,
in the sense of the blind leading the blind), know anything at all


                        81 By Henry S. Salt

of such very notable poems as Edward Carpenter’s ” Towards
Democracy ” and Francis Adams’s ” Songs of the Army of the
Night,” two powerful and characteristic works alone sufficient to
distinguish the period that produced them. But even under such
conditions, it seems strange that the poetry of John E. Barlas
(” Evelyn Douglas “) is read and valued by none but a few fellow-
enthusiasts. For, as a set-off against the disadvantage of obscure
publication, Barlas’s style, unlike that of Carpenter and Adams,
is not, externally at least, a novel or unfamiliar one, but is framed
on established literary canons ; so that there should have been one
obstacle the less to a recognition of his rich and brilliant genius.

Of all rebels against the existing state of society, none perhaps
are so irreconcilable as the passionate lovers of beauty and nature
who, like Richard Jefferies, are for ever contrasting the actual
with the ideal, the serfdom of the present with the freedom of the
years to come. It is to this order of heart and mind, children of
a golden past or a golden future, that Barlas belongs. He is, if
ever poet was, a Greek in spirit, but he possesses also, in a high
degree, the modern sense of brotherhood with all that lives. A
fiery impatience of privilege, authority, commercialism, breathes
through all his writings ; and therefore, like all poets who have
held these burning thoughts, he is lonely, a stranger, an exile, as
it were, from some Hid Isle of Beauty, who has been stranded on
savage shores. This marked characteristic, the isolation of a
proud but loving heart, will not be overlooked by any careful
student of the eight small volumes of verse published by Barlas
between 1884 and 1893.*

It is in the earliest and the latest of these volumes that, in my

* All of these books are more or less difficult to obtain. The British
Museum has a complete set. Mr. F. Kirk, 42 Melbourne Street,
Leicester, has some of the volumes on sale.


                        82 John Barlas’s Poetry

opinion, he is seen at his best. The Poems Lyrical and Dramatic,
which appeared in 1884, but were written at various dates from
1877 onward, are indeed in many ways imperfect, but the author’s
apology for the immaturity of these ” February flowers ” was not
needed ; if immature, they are still flowers of which any lyric
poet might be proud, and they could have been grown in no
other garden than that wherein they stand. The influence of
other poets, Shelley and Swinburne and Poe, for instance, may be
noted in this early work ; but the resemblance is only a superficial
one, and there is no mistaking the originality of the thought and
workmanship, the deep heartfelt humanity by which the poems
are informed, or the gorgeous tropical splendour of the imagery
and diction. There are stanzas in ” The Golden City,” ” The
River’s Pilgrimage,” ” Ode to Euterpe,” and elsewhere, which
are steeped in a rich fantasy of feeling and colour quite peculiar to
Barlas, and not to be surpassed, in its own way, in all the range
of our literature. Witness the following verses from “The
Golden City ” :

” I dreamed once of a city
    Of marble and of gold,
Where pity melts to pity
    And love for love is sold,
Where hot light smokes and shivers
Round endless sweeps of rivers,
A home of high endeavours
    For the stately men of old. . . .

And under tower and temple,
    By minarets and domes,
With burning waves a-tremble
    The stately river foams,


                        83 By Henry S. Salt

Lapping the granite arches
Of the bridges, while it marches
Through rows of limes and larches
    By many hearths and homes.

By buttresses and basements
    And pillared colonnade,
By open doors and casements
    In festal wreaths arrayed,
By stair and terrace wending
In windings without ending,
Sunlight or moonlight blending
    With massy squares of shade.

By gardens full of fountains
    And statues white as snow,
Nymphs of the seas and mountains,
    And goddesses a-row,
Where the deep heart of the roses
Its secret sweet uncloses,
And the scent, like heat, reposes
    On the beds that bask and glow.”

If it be thought that this is mere “word-painting,” take the
passionate cry for rest and healing from ” Santa Cecilia,” surely
one of the most true and beautiful lyrics in modern English

” Ah Santa Cecilia
    Touch me and heal me,
Me, storm-swept, even me,
Beyond life’s utmost sea ;
    Kiss me and seal me,
Santa Cecilia.


                        84 John Barlas’s Poetry

Sweet music and melody,
    Ye only left me
Far to my heart outweigh
Love, hope, faith, reason’s ray,
    All things bereft me,
Music and melody. . . .

Ah Santa Cecilia,
    Never forsake me,
In white calm and white storm,
Cold winds and weathers warm,
    Let thy voice wake me,
Santa Cecilia.

Sweet music and melody,
    Take me and lift me
Above where baser tides
Under sheer mountain-sides
    Drive me and drift me,
Music and melody.

Ah, Santa Cecilia,
    Touch me and heal me,
Me, storm-swept, even me,
Beyond life’s utmost sea ;
    Kiss me and seal me,
Santa Cecilia.”

Nor is this youthful volume wanting in poems which show a firm
grip and a power of concentrated expression. In all that poets
have written of Freedom, it would be difficult to find a nobler
picture than the following from ” Le Jeune Barbaroux ” :


                        85 By Henry S. Salt

Freedom, her arm outstretched but lips firm set,
Freedom, her eyes with tears of pity wet,
    But her robe splashed with drops of bloody dew,
Freedom, thy goddess, is our goddess yet,
    Young Barbaroux.

Freedom, that tore the robe from kings away,
    That clothed the beggar-child in warm array,
Freedom, the hand that raised, the hand that slew,
Freedom, divine then, is divine to-day,
    Young Barbaroux.

We drown, we perish in a surging sea ;
    We are not equal, brotherly, nor free ;—
Who from this death shall stoop and raise us ? who ?
Thy Freedom, and the memory of such as thee,
Young Barbaroux.”

In the volumes that succeeded these early Poems, it would seem that
John Barlas, in his characteristic recoil from the ugliness of
modern realities, lapsed too far in the contrary direction of
poetical mysticism. His Phantasmagoria, or Dream-Fugues, is
a wonderful attempt at depicting, with huge prodigality of
language and metaphor, his haunting sense of a strange vast
dreamland, in which, as in De Quincey’s opium-visions, the
colossal features of the East loom vague and portentous.

” Hast not sailed in dreams upon a mystic river
    Through caverns, and through mountains, and through palaces ?
Seen the sunrays fall, the moonbeams quiver,
    On the roofs of Tripolis and Fez :

The Yellow Book—Vol. XI. F


                        86 John Barlas’s Poetry

Drifted far ‘mid many a granite column,
    Through the brazen gates, on waves that shone,
In the awful hush of moonrise soft and solemn,
Into Babylon ?

Hast thou never strayed through China’s mystic regions,
    Lamplit gardens cool with waft of many a fan,
Seen their silken girls in silver legions,
    Or the gorgeous ladies of japan,
Heard the small feet patter, long robes sweeping,
    Kissed the laughing lips, shocked as it seemed ? —
Ah, thou hast not known the joys of sleeping,
Thou hast never dreamed ! ”

There is a turbid excess of imagery in these weird fantasies that
somehow mars their effect. A similar, but worse exaggeration of
tone and treatment is noticeable in the two dramas, Punchinello
and his wife Judith and The Queen of the Hid Isle, which, in spite
of some very beautiful lines and passages, quite fail to realise their
author s high conception of the subjects chosen by him. Lack of
humour, which in a dream-fugue can perhaps be tolerated, since
dreamland is not often humorous, is fatal to a drama ; and much
that is over-wrought and feeble-forcible in this part of Barlas’s
work is due to this deficiency. That he possessed any of the
essential qualities of a dramatist will hardly be asserted, even by
those who most admire the richness of his lyrics ; but humour
would at least have saved him from the mannerisms and affecta-
tions which make the reading of his dramas a somewhat weary

But when we leave his blank verse behind us, and turn to the
later lyrics and sonnets of 1887-1889, there is a change indeed ;
for in this maturer work there is all the fire of the youthful poems,


                        87 By Henry S. Salt

but purged and clarified into a calmness and simplicity of expres-
sion which lend it new strength. This increased power, which is
first observable in the charming little volume of Bird-notes (1887),
is seen at its best in the Songs of a Bayadere (1893), from which
I take the following lyric entitled ” The Mummy’s Love-Story,”
a masterpiece of passionate feeling clothed in simplest words :

” Where in a stone sarcophagus
    Lay in embalmed repose
A shape with robes luxurious,
    They found a faded rose.

Perhaps it was an amorous boy
    That to a princess gave
Some token of their secret joy,
    That she wore to the grave.

Perhaps it was a murdered youth
    Sent on the eve of doom
An emblem of forgiving truth,
    His queen wore to the tomb.

Who knows ? But there it speaks for her
    Of sorrows long past now,
When neither joy nor pain can stir
    The arch of her calm brow.

And so, when you have let me die,
    And you too are at rest,
Some trinket of my gift may lie
    On your repentant breast.


                        88 John Barlas’s Poetry

And when our language is forgot,
    Some lover of old scenes
May find it in a haunted spot,
    And wonder what it means.”

But it is in the Sonnet, perhaps, that Barlas s genius reaches its
fullest development. I speak advisedly when I say that his
sequence of Love Sonnets (1889), quite unknown as it is to
ninety-nine out of a hundred readers of poetry, deserves to take
rank, and will some day take rank, with the greatest sonnet-
structures of the century. For serenity of tone, mastery of style,
and deep personal pathos, it would be hard to surpass many of the
sonnets in this book, which has drawn from no less an authority
than George Meredith the opinion that, in this form of writing,
Barlas ” takes high rank among the poets of his time.” Here is
the concluding sonnet of the series, which as Mr. Meredith justly
observes, is “unmatched for nobility of sentiment, and the work-
manship is adequate.”

” When in the lonely stillness of the tomb
    I voiceless lie and cold, omit not thou
    To sing and dance as merrily as now :
Bring roses once a year in fullest bloom,
And rather than that thou should st come in gloom,
    Bring thy new love with thee : together bow
    O’er the green mound that hides the quiet brow—
Yea I would bless his babe within thy womb.
How can love be where jealousy is not ?
    How shall I say ? This only : I have borne
That cruel pain : yet would I never blot,
Living, with selfish love the loved one’s lot,
    Nor, dead, would have my dear love live forlorn,—
Yet would not wish my own love quite forgot.”


                        89 By Henry S. Salt

In speaking of a writer who is practically unknown, I have been
compelled to trust in large measure to quotation. The passages
quoted, though in themselves but brief and fragmentary, will at
least have given some indication of the qualities that distinguish
their author—a rare splendour of imagination and melody of
utterance ; a spirit of intense devotion to beauty and freedom,
intense hatred of oppression and wrong, which rises, in his latest
poems, through unrest of pain and disappointment, to a note of
high calm unselfishness, ” a great peace growing up within the
soul,” which few poets have attained to. In the words of one of
his noblest sonnets :

” Yet love, for thee, yet, love, for thy dear grace,
    I walk in dreams as toward the morning star,
Through clouds that shine and open out above ;
And all the future flames about my face,
    And all the past lies looming low afar
To me emerging on the heights of love.”

Indirectly, too, what has been quoted may have given some faint
hint of the self-revelation that every true poet perforce leaves in
his verses, intelligible to those only who can read between the
lines with sympathy and understanding—in this case a sad record
of a troubled life, now prematurely darkened by disease. Of one
thing the reader has absolute conviction, that no singer was ever
more true to his faith and his vocation ; though, as he himself
cries in his ode to his goddess, Euterpe :

” To me thou hast given the pangs, and the chaplet of
bay-leaf withheld.”

That the homage due to the great heart of a real poet will be


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permanently denied to John Barlas, I do not believe ; and even as
I have been writing this short article, designed to draw attention,
however inadequately, to a neglected fount of song, has come the
welcome news that a volume of selections from his poems is about
to be laid before the public. No more interesting book of verse
will have appeared for many a year.

MLA citation:

Salt, Henry S. “John Barlas’s Poetry.” The Yellow Book, vol. 11, October 1896, pp. 80-90. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020.