John Barlas was a poet and revolutionary socialist political activist who was often known in literary circles by the pseudonym Evelyn Douglas. He had at least eight books of Swinburnean-influenced verse published and he was known to favour the Decadent Movement of arts and literature. This was a Western Europe-wide concept that emphasised an
Examples of work from those involved often featured perverse, crude humour and a general self-loathing by the protagonists themselves. The movement had begun in France and reached the United States eventually.
He was born John Evelyn Barlas sometime during the year 1860 in Burma, in the Far East. He must have come from a family of reasonable means as he was sent to the Merchant Taylors’ School in the City of London for his early education and he then went up to Oxford to study at New College. He met Oscar Wilde there and the two became close friends. His ardent Socialist political views were forged at Oxford and he was one of the organisers of the Social Democratic Federation. Already a talented writer, he was contributing articles to a socialist journal called Commonweal which was run by William Morris.
Barlas was no stranger to trouble and took an active part in a violent demonstration in central London on the 13th November 1887. The Irish National League and Social Democratic Federation combined to protest about unemployment and Irish coercion and were met by great numbers of armed police and military personnel. There were serious injuries, and many arrests, but fortunately no fatalities. Barlas was apparently felled by a baton to the head at one point.
On another occasion, in 1891, he fired three shots from a revolver in the direction of the House of Commons. This was his protest against parliamentary procedures that he did not approve of. He was arrested, and bailed by his friend Wilde. All of this revolutionary behaviour was somewhat at odds with an otherwise gentle, well-educated man who sparkled in company and charmed all who met him with his good looks and engaging personality. He had a brief association with a group of literary men who met originally for dining purposes. They adopted the name of the Rhymers’ Club and were responsible for a number of anthologies of poetry from the likes of W B Yeats, John Gray, Ernest Dowson and Oscar Wilde.
The poetry produced by Barlas was much admired by other writers, some of which reflected his socialist ideals and concerns, although he did write on other themes. An example of his social conscience is in the poem called, perhaps incongruously, Love Sonnet and it is the author’s expression of anger regarding the oppression of the weaker and poorer members of society. Here is this short poem in full:
As “Evelyn Douglas” Barlas produced eight books of poetry between 1884 and 1893 which included Bloody Heart in 1885 and Love Sonnets in 1889. Unfortunately he suffered mental health problems in his later years and spent some time in mental institutions in Scotland. Following the incident where he fired shots at the Houses of Parliament he was sent to Gartnavel Asylum in Glasgow after being bailed from custody.
John Barlas died while a patient in Gartnavel sometime during the year 1914, aged 54.