The careers of British Aesthetes and Decadents almost always follow the same trajectory: after statements about living for and in art and writing works intended to shock the middle class reading public, these authors end up either converting to Roman Catholicism or dedicating themselves to the secular religions of Socialism or Anarchism. John Evelyn Barlas, who certainly wrote some fine verse, was different: he began on the fringes of the political left and then became a Decadent poet, though to be sure, as Philip K. Cohen explains, he never fully and finally committed to either. In the end, his only commitment was to a mental hospital.
Cohen's excellent life and works of Barlas places him within the several key contexts while also fairly evaluating and skillfully interpreting his poetry. After a biographical first chapter, which explains his family, early life, and career at Oxford, the second, “Teaching and Socialism,” concentrates upon his teaching at various schools, marriage and infidelities, and movement towards socialism. Chapter 3, “Toward the Anarchist Fringe,” covers exactly what the title announces, and the following three chapters, which concern his poetry, discuss in turn literary associations and early verse, his Aesthetic and Decadent poetry, and finally an assessment of his work. The biographical portion of this fine book closes with the story of Barlas's last two decades in a mental institution, which are followed by a valuable bibliographical appendix consisting of a bibliographical essay, descriptive bibliography, and checklist of the anthologies in which Barlas's poetry has appeared.
As Cohen's title suggests, one cannot understand Barlas or his work without setting both in three contexts: Aesthetic and Decadent movements, Victorian socialism and anarchism, and the Victorian and Edwardian insane asylum. One of this book's great strengths appears in the success with which it briefly summarizes each of these complex contexts; another is the graceful way it manages the daunting task of interweaving discussions of these contexts with the events of the poet's life and the poems he produced. His distinction between the Aesthetes and Decadents stands out as the best I've seen, and I found particularly valuable his discussion of Victorian and Edwardian ideas of insanity, the nature of mental institutions, and the realities of involuntary commitments, such as the one that Barlas experienced.
Cohen, who discusses the various forms of European and British anarchism, explains that by 1890 Barlas, a man often tempted to violence, “had shifted from a markedly parliamentary form of Socialism to the least outré, most cerebral manifestation of Anarchism. And as he declared in print, he foresaw, or at least favored, a bloodless revolution dependent on the suicide of government rather than its assassination. He did not preach "propaganda by deed," the strategy of the Russian Nihilists and an approach to which many Anarchists subscribed” (98). Barlas's poetry and politics so intertwined that distinguishing between them becomes difficult.
Cohen's research does, however make one thing clear. Barlas, who had displayed mania throughout his life, certainly did not become insane — as earlier critics have romantically claimed — after having been struck by a police officer's truncheon during the Bloody Sunday riot of 13 November 1887 (after which he supposedly fell unconscious at the feet of Eleanor Marx: His letters prove he wasn't there (62-65). Similarly, Barlas's psychological problems did not come from syphilis.
On a more positive bote, Cohen shows that the philosophical basis of Barlas's literature and political activism arise in a theory of love that derives from Plato:
His dominant theme is love, which, after Plato, he defined in a variety of ways, some of which reach beyond the private realm to include the ideal society, and thus encompass his political concerns. Though his conception of love emphasizes romantic and erotic attachments, a broader formulation, including his Socialist and Anarchist Communist ideals and predictions of revolution, appears, with varying degrees of prominence, in almost all of his 11 volumes. He was also drawn to transcendent experience, which he represented both as an abstract Platonic love of ideals and within the tradition of English Romanticism. . . .
In Phantasmagoria: Dream-Fugues (1887), Bird-Notes (1887), and other verse written during the early 1890s but published posthumously, Barlas seems to have vacillated between the experience of the senses and Pater's "impressions," on the one hand, and the idealism of Plato and Shelley, on the other, with occasional sojourns in Swinburnian territory. (The urge toward political activism is almost always present, in the background or foreground, as a complicating factor.) He found each of these positions suitable for experimentation but none worthy of a final commitment. 
Throughout the biography Cohen draws upon the correspondence of Barlas, friends, and family, which continued throughout two decades in the Gartnavel Royal Asylum outside of Glasgow. The letters provide ample evidence of his political faiths and marital infidelities. Here, for example, he expresses his contempt of contemporary poetry (from which he exempts Swinburne):
Real poetry is almost a dead art now. . . . William Morris is curds and cream, Tennyson alternating buffoonery & sickly sentimentality, and Browning philosophy in verse(?), and philosophy entirely unreconcilable with the truth of science. No one looks his own personality boldly in the face, no one writes from his heart. Every one writes to please. I believe the whole existing schools excepting a few isolated poems are dictated by this wish.... These men provide food convenient for an age which has gone to sleep in politics and philosophy. Now it seems just waking & the next world will demand a real voice. 
Good news and bad about the way his publishers have served Cohen's fine book. On the one hand, the Rivendale Press has done a very good job choosing type and page design for John Evelyn Barlas, A Critical Biography, thereby producing most attractive, well-designed, easy-to-read pages. On the other hand, the volume was not well served by the publisher's manuscript editor, who permitted dozens of misused ibids to clutter the endnotes to each chapter. First of all, Ibid. means “in the exact same place,” so one cannot have “Ibid., 17” and “Ibid., 22;” if one is going to use this antiquated system of references, one needs “Op. cit., 17” and “Op. cit., 22” Second, more than four decades ago editors instructed me to use short titles instead of Ibid. and Op. cit. It may be a matter of personal taste, but I much prefer encountering a page number in the text to thumbing through an endnote in search of the same information. Using forms of citation recommended by the MLA and Chicago style manuals would have saved 10-15 pages of notes, pages that any reader would prefer devoted to more of Cohen's cogent, convincing analyses of Barlas's poems.
Other passages from John Evelyn Barlas, A Critical Biography and related material
- How the Decadents differ from the Aesthetes and the Aesthetic Movement
- Anarchism and anarchists in in Late-Victorian Britain
- "How easy was false imprisonment in a Victorian or Edwardian mental hospital?
- “The little hands clasp thee” — a poem on the death of the poet's three-year-old daughter
Cohen, Philip. John Evelyn Barlas, A Critical Biography: Poetry, Anarchism, and Mental Illness in Late-Victorian Britain. Rivendale Press, 2012.
Last modified 5 December 2012