John Evelyn Barlas (1860 – 1914), pseudonym Evelyn Douglas, was an English poet and political activist (anarchist-communist) of the late nineteenth century. Born in Rangoon on 13 July 1860 to a family of merchants, Barlas was a direct descendent of Barlass (Kate Douglas) the 15th century Scots heroine. He was a member of the decadent movement in literature, as well as a revolutionary socialist in politics. Eight books of his Swinburne-influenced verse were published between 1884 and 1893, including 1885’s The Bloody Heart, 1887’s Phantasmagoria: Dream-Fugues and 1889’s Love Sonnets.
After his farther died, John Barlas was brought to Glasgow by his mother; he was just a year old. By 1874, the family were resident in London and Barlas was educated at St John’s Wood School and then the Merchant Taylor’s School. His mother died in 1878 and Barlas moved into lodgings in Great Russell Street. Here he began to study Marxist and other left-wing literature.
He studied at New College, Oxford (matriculated 16 October 1879), where he befriended Oscar Wilde, who became an intimate companion. At Oxford, Barlas became a radical, though clearly both wealthy and aristocratic. At Oxford he married Eveline Honoria Nelson Davies (1851-1934) a relation of Lord Nelson. Their first child, Evelyn Adelaide Isabella was born in May of 1882. That year Barlas began the study of law but after four terms abandoned his training as a barrister.
After obtaining a BA in Literae Humaniores in 1884, Barlas was appointed Professor of Languages at St. Stanislaus Roman Catholic College at Rahan, Tullamore in Ireland. During this period, Barlas began to write verse. The death of the daughter in June 1885 saw Barlas and his wife return to London where he took up a post in a grammar school in Chelmsford. Barlas was considered a great and inspiring master by his pupils and colleagues. In Chelmsford, Barlas started a socialist society and involved himself in anarchist ideas. He often wore a red ribbon in his buttonhole as he gave speeches in public.
Barlas began a link with Perthshire in December of 1886 when the family set up home in Crieff. Here he befriended three teachers at the local Morrison’s Academy: John Davidson (poet); Frank Leibich (music critic and composer) and E. T. Peberdy. In fact Barlas dedicated his book Bird Notes (1887) to Peberdy and Davidson.
“In memory of happy days in the Highlands gladdened by the two best things in my life – Music and Literature.”
Next, Barlas ended up in Egham, Surrey where he lived at Vine Cottage (Eaglefield Green) until 1891. Barlas began at this moment in his life an exchange of letters with the poet John Gray (Canon Gray). Barlas travelled around the country speaking for socialism and supporting various proletarian movements and actions.
Having served as an organizer for the Social Democratic Federation and as a contributor to William Morris’ socialist journal Commonweal, he demonstrated in Trafalgar Square on Bloody Sunday – 13 November 1887 [The Social Democratic Federation (SDF) organised a meeting for 13th February, 1887 in Trafalgar Square to protest against the policies of the Conservative Government headed by the Marquess of Salisbury. The government decided to ban the meeting and the police were given the orders to stop the marchers entering Trafalgar Square. The SDF decided to continue with their planned meeting and as a result the marchers were attacked by the police. George Barnes was one of those who was badly injured by the charging police horses. Some of the protesters were arrested and later two of the leaders of the march, John Burns and Robert Cunninghame Graham, were arrested and later sentenced to a six-week prison sentence.] He was “batoned and floored”there, after which it is said he fell, bloodied, at the feet of Eleanor Marx. This assault led to life-long medical problems – delirium and depression.
Barlas was briefly associated with the Rhymers’ Club, having been sponsored by Ernest Dowson. His work, which was mostly devoid of socialist themes, was much admired by contemporary authors such as John Davidson and Henry Stephens Salt. He was also known by his friends as a brilliant conversationalist and a man of compelling personality and good looks.
Possessing both fragile mental health and intense emotions, Barlas was arrested on the morning of New Year’s Eve, 1891 after walking to Westminster Bridge and firing a revolver three times at the House of Commons, to show his contempt for Parliament and his support for direct action; this was during one of his spells of depression. Although he was bailed out by Oscar Wilde and H. H. Champion (Social Democratic Federation) two weeks later, Barlas was eventually admitted to James Murray’s Royal Asylum in Perth (September 1892). Discharged in March of the following year, Barlas was within a short time admitted to Gartnavel Asylum, Glasgow, where he spent much of his later life in severe mental illness. He died 15 August 1914, aged 54, while still living in Gartnavel of a valvular disease of the heart.
During his time in the asylum Barlas wrote 23 dramas, 20 volumes of lyrics, many novels and lots of other pieces of writing. This writing unfortunately has not survived. The work that has survived includes 8 volumes of verse and dramas (7 published under the pseudonym Evelyn Douglas) and one Holy of Holies: Confessions of an Anarchist (1887) published anonymously. He is considered by some to be one of the best poets of his time – “the Keats of the socialist movement” – Henry S. Salt. Oscar Wilde and Ramsay MacDonald were amongst his admirers.
Despite the fact that his politics were all important to him, Barlas rarely alludes to his political views in his writings. His primary themes are the Love of Life; Love of Beauty; Love of Nature; Love of Intellectual Freedom; Love of Brotherhood and the Love of Women. His writing is a thing of beauty and has been described as delicate, simple and picturesque.
John Evelyn Barlas is buried at Glasgow necropolis. The Mitchell Library in Glasgow is home to several papers and correspondence relating to Barlas.
Lowe, David. John Barlas: Sweet Singer and Socialist. Cupar-Fife, 1915.
Salt, Henry (ed.) Selections from the Poems of John E. Barlas. Elkin Matthews, 1925.
Sloan, John (ed.) John Davidson: First of the Moderns. Oxford University Press, 1995. Beckson, Karl. (ed.) Aesthetes and Decadents of the 1890′s. ACP, 1981
Oblivion! is it not one name of death?
Nay, is not Lethe death’s most dismal name,
Death growing hour by hour within our frame,
Death settling slowly in our brain, the breath
Of the soul ebbing, so that he who saith,
I am to-day as yesterday the same,
Lies, for his thoughts are fled like smoke from flame,
And like the dew his sorrow vanisheth.
Changed is the river, though the waves remain,
Which rocks of slowlier-changing circumstance
Plough up in every day of chafing foam.
Changed is the river, gone, gone to the main,
Yesterday’s dream and last year’s happy chance,
And the heart’s thoughts again return not home.
John Evelyn Barlas
Perth’s AK Bell Library (Local Studies section) houses John Barlas’ pamphlet onOscar Wilde: B.Wil (L.Bar) 713690 P.B. and 750202P.B. – numbers 65 and 66 of 100 copies printed.
Born in Rangoon, Burma. on 13 July 1860. Family were merchants. A descendent of Barlas (Kate Douglas) 15th Century. His father died when he was a year old; he was then brought by his mother to Glasgow. In 1874 they are in London and Barlas attends St. John’s Wood School followed by Merchant Taylor’s School. His mother died in 1878 and the young Barlas moves into lodgings in London’s Great Russell Street.
Educated at New College, Oxford – matriculated 16 October 1879. Here he became friendly with Oscar Wilde who became an intimate companion. He was a radical at Oxford though he was also aristocratic and wealthy. At Oxford he marries Eveline Honoria Nelson Davies (1851-1934) a relation of Lord Nelson. In 1882 begins to study law – abandons training as a barrister after four terms. Graduates BA in Literae Humaniores in 1884. Then appointed Professor of Languages at St. Stanislaus Roman Catholic College at Rahan, Tullamore in Ireland.
Children: First is Evelyn Adelaide Isabella (born May 1882). She dies in June 1885 and the family return to London.
Teacher: Graduates BA in Literae Humaniores in 1884. Then appointed Professor of Languages at St. Stanislaus Roman Catholic College at Rahan, Tullamore in Ireland. After the death of their daughter, Barlas and his wife return to London. He obtains a post at a grammar school in Chelmsford where he is considered to be a great teacher and inspiring. After Chelmsford the family move to Crieff.
Perthshire: Moves to Crieff and befriends three teachers of Morrison’s Academy: John Davidson (poet); Frank Leibich (music critic and composer); and E. T. Peberdy. After Crieff the family move to Egham, Surrey – Vine Cottage (Eaglefield) – stay ’til 1891. At Vine Cottage he starts to exchange letters with the poet John Gray b(Canon Gray).
Decadent movement in literature. Whilst at St. Stanislaus Roman Catholic College at Rahan, Tullamore in Ireland he starts to write verse. At Vine Cottage he starts to exchange letters with the poet John Gray (Canon Gray). 1884-93 published eight volumes (books) of verse under name Evelyn Douglas (actually seven under the name Douglas and Holy of Holies anonymously) “combining his interest in socialism and Swinburnean Decadence”. Considered one of the finest poets of his time. He was described by H. H. Salt as “the Keats of the socialist movement”. His admirers included Oscar Wilde and Ramsay MacDonald. Barlas’ writing is not political despite the centrality of his politics in his life. He writes of Love of Life; Love of Beauty; Love of Nature; Love of Intellectual Freedom; Love of Brotherhood and the Love of Women. Words used to describe his poetry include delicate, simple and picturesque.
Poet, revolutionary socialist, political activist (anarchist-communist). His study of left-wing literature (including Marxism) began when he moved into Great Russell Street lodgings. During his time at Chelmsford he sets up a socialist society and studies anarchism. When undertaking public speaking Barlas wears a red ribbon in his buttonhole. Whilst resident in Surry Barlas begins to travel around speaking for socialism and becomes involved with several working class groups and campaigns. He is an organiser for the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and writes for William Morris’ socialist publication Commonweal.
Demonstrator in Trafalgar Square on Bloody Sunday (13 November 1887): The SDF set up a meeting In Trafalgar Square as demonstration against the incumbent Conservative government led by the Marquess of Salisbury.. The government banned the meeting and the police mobilised. Nevertheless, the SDF went ahead and the demo was attacked by the police. The police charged the demonstrators on horseback. George Barnes was injured in the police assault. Many demonstrators were arrested. After the event, John Burns and Robert Cunninghame-Graham, organisers of the demonstration, were arrested and given six-week prison sentences.
J. Barlas – “the pleasure of being batoned and floored”. Tradition suggests that Barlas then fell at the feet of Eleanor Marx. The attack left him permanently injured and he suffered delirium and depression for the remainder of his life.
Briefly associated with the Rhymers’ Club – he was sponsored by Ernest Dowson. His work was not political gained an audience including John Davidson and Henry Stephens Salt.
Characteristics: Good conversationalist. Good looks. Compelling personality.
On New Year’s Eve 1891 being in an aroused mental and emotional (depression) state Barlas was arrested after firing a revolver (three times) at the House of Commons from Westminster Bridge – as a form of direct action and to show his contempt for parliament. He was bailed out by Oscar Wilde and H. H. Champion (SDF) two weeks later. Later he was admitted to James Murray’s Royal Asylum in Perth – September 1892. The next year he was discharged (March) but was soon in Gartnavel Asylum, Glasgow – he spent most of the rest of his life here. At Gartnavel Barlas wrote 23 dramas, 20 volumes of lyrics, several novels and other pieces of writing – this is all lost.
Died 15 August 1914 – aged 54. He was still at Gartnavel. Barlas died of a valvular disease of the heart. He is buried at the Glasgow Necropolis.
Mitchell Library holds some of the papers of Barlas and those associated with him.
Barlas, John, The Life and Death of Jason: A Poem by William Morris. Ellis & White, 1882.
Barlas, John E., Holy of Holies. Confessions of an Anarchist. Chelmsford: J. H. Clarke, 1887. BL/NLS. Published anonymously at the time.
Beckson, Karl (Editor), Aesthetes and Decadents of the 1890s: An Anthology of British Poetry and Prose. Chicago: Academy , 1981.
Douglas, Evelyn, Poems, Lyrical and Dramatic. London: Trübner & Co., 1884. BL/NLS
Douglas, Evelyn, The Bloody Heart. 1885
Douglas, Evelyn, Selections from “Song of a Bayadere,” and “Songs of a Troubadour”. Dundee: Printed by James P. Matthew & Co., 1893. BL/NLS British Library copy: “Privately circulated and issued to reviews and newspapers by the author, J. E. Barlas … . Manuscript note on fly-leaf.”
Douglas, Evelyn, Punchinello and his wife Judith: a tragedy. Chelmsford: Printed at the “Essex County Chronicle” Office, 1886. BL/NLS – “a dramatic poem”. British Library copy: “Copy of Eccles 949. Presentation copy to John Gray with his bookplate and Manuscript Inscription inside front-cover: To the perfect artist from his friend, J. E. Barlas. Manuscript note on fly-leaf: Vine Cottage, Englefield Green, Surrey. With a Hawkesyard Priory Library stamp on front fly-leaf.”
Douglas, Evelyn, Bird-notes. Chelmsford: J. H. Clarke, 1887. BL British Library copy: “Copy at C. author’s presentation copy to Oscar Wilde, with Manuscript inscription.” Bird-notes is dedicated to E. T. Peberdy and John Davidson, both of Morrison’s Academy: “In memory of happy days in the Highlands gladdened by the two best things in my life – Music and Literature”.
Douglas, Evelyn, Phantasmagoria. “Dream-Fugues.” Chelmsford: [D. Driver], 1887. BL/NLS
Douglas, Evelyn, Love Sonnets. Chelmsford: J. H. Clarke, 1887. BL/NLS
Douglas, Evelyn, Selections from the poems by John E. Barlas (edited with preface by H. S. Salt). London: Elkin Matthews, 1925. NLS
Douglas, Evelyn, Oscar Wilde a study by John E. Barlas. Edinburgh: Tragara Press, 1978. NLS
NLS copy: “No. 91 of a limited edition of 100 copies.” “Originally published in the Novel Review, April 1892.”
Douglas, Evelyn, Six sonnets/by John Barlas; edited with an introductory note by Ian Fletcher. London: 74 Fortune Green Road, NW6. Eric and Joan Stevens, 1981. Limited edition of 95 copies. BL/NLS
Douglas, Evelyn, Phantasmagoria; Love sonnets. New York; London: Garland, 1984. BL
Douglas, Evelyn, The lyric-epic of love: being love-sonnets divided into books according to the stages of love’s growth and harmonised with the answering moods and phrase of nature/by John Evelyn Barlas; with an introduction by Peter Mendes. London: Privately published by Eric Stevens, 2001. BL/NLS – British Library copy:“includes bibliographical references” “Limited edition of 150 copies.”
Douglas, Evelyn, The Queen of the Hid Isle. Charleston: BiblioBazaar, 2008.
Looker, Samuel J., A Neglected Poet: John Barlas. Socialist Review. 19 (January 1922), 28-34 (February 1922) 78-82.
Lowe, David, John Barlas, sweet singer and socialist. Cuper: Craigwood House Publishing, 1915. BL/NLS
Salt, Henry (editor), Selections from the Poems of John E. Barlas. Elkin Matthews, 1925.
Sloan, John (editor), John Davidson: The First of the Moderns. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995