- A Fin-de-Siècle Failed Radical:John Evelyn Barlas
John Evelyn Barlas (1860-1914), Nineties poet and anarchist, will very likely have no other biography than this appealing and thoroughly documented life-and-works by Philip K. Cohen. Little of the voluminous output in verse and prose by Barlas has survived, and little has been anthologized since. Educated as a gentleman, he rebelled against his class, his wide reading energizing his lyrical gifts and his paranoid delusions. His teaching employment after Oxford was irregular and brief—hampered by his undisciplined personality. Mental illness undid his early promise; yet still stubbornly writing, he lived the last twenty years of his pathetic life in a Scottish hospital for the insane.
On the fringe of the Wildean circle, and close to several of Oscar's intimates, he was also involved as a fiery writer and speaker with radical politics, from Henry Hyde Champion's Social Democratic Federation and Henry Salt's cautious anarchism to even more extreme factions. Wilde probably owed some of his ideas in The Soul of Man under Socialism (1891) to Barlas, who described the manifesto to John Gray as "the most perfect revolutionary essay the world has yet seen, not only as a work of art, but for knowledge and insight." To Barlas as anarchist, government was always the enemy. "From the cradle to the grave," he wrote, "we are never left alone." Demonstrating against alleged restrictions on personal liberty, he was remanded to Holloway Gaol on charges of firing a pistol at the House of Commons—to Cohen "a fin de siècle version of Don Quixote's famous charge against another kind of windmill." Wilde provided bail to get Barlas released on surety of pacific behavior for two months.
For a time he got away with such defiance. "The aristocrat's eccentricity," Cohen writes, "was the pauper's madness." Barlas was, after all, an Oxonian. Belligerent even when sober, his abbreviated stays behind bars soon became incarceration in asylums. To a prison physician he fancied of his occult powers "that the Whitechapel murders [by 'Jack the Ripper'] may possibly have been committed by him through another person." Addicted to violence as his schizophrenia flared up (Cohen also sees bipolar disorder), he was also attracted, to his cost, when at liberty, to riskily promiscuous sex, abandoning his wife and child to live with prostitutes. Although he would never dedicate any of [End Page 399] his writings to Eveline, early on (September 1889) he would write to her, with rare sensitivity,
And happy be with absence reconciled,So you may never but for pleasure weep,Whilst half a wake, when stars are out above,To hear the tender breathing of our child.
However misguided his behavior, its chaos was rendered manageable by an inheritance from an aunt. At Garnavel Royal Asylum he could have his meals paid for and brought in. He saw a few remaining friends on occasional visits to him, and he wrote poetry and fiction that often seemed sane. Robert Harborough Sherard observed after receiving a quite lucid letter from the asylum about scientific experiments his former companion was conducting: "Barlas is a brilliant scholar and an admirable man of letters, and it is an abominable shame that he should be kept locked up a moment longer than necessary, if it is necessary." But in the primitive state of psychiatric medicine as the century turned, Barlas was a hopeless case. Shortly before his death he wrote to Henry Salt, who had published some of his verse in Songs of Freedom (1893): "There are now about 25 full blown dramas & 20 vols. of Lyrics besides novels & other things. But scarcely anything issued [in print]." All we have is Philip Cohen's fascinating book bringing Barlas back to his wasted life.