Two Socialist Poets
by Henry S. Salt
THE NAME of Mr. Salt is honoured wherever fighters on behalf of the oppressed and suffering are gathered together. Readers may remember “Rho’s” enthusiastic review of his recent book of verse Homo Rapiens. We are privileged to be able to introduce him directly to our readers.
ARE THERE still any Socialists who care for the literature the poetical literature—of their movement? It hardly looks like it. There are now so many subjects that are more thrilling than poetry, such as economics, taxation, wages, unemployment, and birth-control ; and I would not for a moment suggest that poetry can take the place of bread. To my mind, the one really wise and witty remark made during the debate on the Prayer Book was Mr. Jack Jones’s—that the workers of this country are more interested in the Rent Book than in the Book of Prayer. The Book of Poetry is in like case. Still, even in these utilitarian days, literature has its uses; and, as we know, it has been written that “Man shall not live by bread alone.” Why, then, is it that Socialists of the present day care less for their poetry than their forerunners did? It was otherwise in Chartist times, though there was then more suffering from hunger and privation than now.* I was told by Eleanor Marx, Karl Marx’s daughter, that she had often heard her father and Engels speak of the great influence which Shelley’s verse had exercised on the Chartist movement, as compared with the later indifference to poetry.
In view of this prevalent lack of interest, it is with some misgiving that I venture to speak of two authors who were not verse-writers but genuine poets, and who lived and died in this Socialist cause of ours, where they seem to be now forgotten. Certainly I rarely, if ever, see mention in our journals of Francis Adams or of John Barlas; that they should be boycotted by the non-Socialist public is only what was to be expected.† They were both personal friends of mine, and I edited small volumes of selections from their writings; books which are now either out of print or withdrawn, and which, as far as their editor’s interest in them was concerned, were from the first entirely a “labour of love.”
Adams and Barlas were as unlike as two men could be; akin only in the sadness of their lives, and in their burning hatred of social injustice and their hope for a fairer future for mankind. Of Adams’s various works, the one by which he best deserves to be remembered is the “Songs of the Army of the Night,” a collection of lyrics which in many instances breathe a fierce resentment of present cruel conditions, “this social structure of red mud,” as he terms it, but in others are full of the gentlest spirit of comradeship and love. “The vast edifice of our Civilisation,” he wrote in his preface, “is built on the essential wrong of recompensing Labour, not according to the worth of its work, but according to the worth of its members in the market of unlimited competition; and that soon comes to mean the payment of what will hold body and soul together.” It is against this tyranny that the sombre Army of the Workers is to advance:
“In the black night, along the mud-deep roads,
Amid the threatening boughs and ghastly streams;
Hark! sounds that gird the darknesses like goads,
Murmurs and rumours and reverberant dreams,
Trampling, breaths, movements, and a little light,—
The marching of the Army of the Night!”
Looking over some of the poems, incisive, satirical, or pathetic as may be, the thought that is uppermost in my mind is wonder that such vivid lyrics as these should be so little known to the soldiers of that very Army for which they were composed, among whom one would have expected them to be familiar and cherished watchwords of the camp. It is difficult to do justice to them by quotation; but I cannot resist, as an instance of Adams’s characteristic manner, taking this one stanza from his “England in Egypt,” a poem written as a counterblast to Kipling’s jingo muse. The poet, sick and dying as a witness of an English regiment passing through the streets of Cairo, a sight which aroused in him a conflicting storm of emotions—love for the brave lads themselves, and hatred of the thraldom of which they are made the tools:
“And the silent Arabs crowded, half defiant, half dismayed,
And the jaunty fifers fifing flung their challenge to the breeze,
And the drummers kneed their drums up as the reckless drumsticks played,
And the Tommies all came trooping, tripping, slouching at their ease.
Ah, Christ, the love I bore them for their brave hearts and strong hands—
Ah, Christ, the hate that smote me for their stupid dull conceits!
I know not which was greater, as I watched their conquering bands
In the dusty jaded sunlight of the sullen Cairo streets.
And my dream of love and hate
Surged, and broke, and gathered there,
As I heard the fifes and drums,
As I heard the fifes and drums,
The fifes and drums of England
Thrilling all the alien air!
And ‘Tommy, Tommy, Tommy,’
I heard the wild fifes cry,
‘Will you never know the England
For which men, not fools, should die?’
And ‘Tommy, Tommy, Tommy,’
I heard the fierce drums roar,
‘Will you always be a cut-throat
And a slave for evermore?’”
Adams disowned with some vehemence the suggestion that he was an anarchist; but I think that the idea of a “catastrophic” Socialism had always some hold on him. “Exactly as the clock strikes the full hour,” so he wrote to me, “not one second before, and not one second after, at which there are enough of us who have grasped the scheme of workable Socialism to grasp also the helm of things and guide the ship—exactly at that sound do we ‘down tools’ and make the big mutiny. Do you think we are going on agonising and educating for ever?”
However that may be, the verses which I have quoted, so imaginative, yet so modern, might alone redeem Socialism from the charge of being unpoetical; and there are many other poems as full of the same qualities in the “Songs of the Army of the Night.”
John Barlas, a descendant of the Scottish heroine, Kate Douglas, who earned the name of Bar-lass, is even less known than Francis A dams to the general public; though his poetry, being cast in a more idealistic form, and seldom touching on events of political or personal import, might have been expected to win him some favour with those readers who can appreciate the charm of flawless verse.* He was, if ever poet was, a Greek in spirit, but, as I said in my preface to his selected poems, he had also in a high degree the modern sense of brotherhood ; and his impatience of our vulgar commercialism, not less sincere, if less fiery, than that of Francis Adams, appears in several of his writings. As a young man, in the ’eighties, he was connected with the Socialist movement in London, and was among the demonstrators in Trafalgar Square on the occasion known as “Bloody Sunday,” in November, 1886, when, as he remarked in one of the letters I received from incident which had very serious consequences, for it was the origin of a malady which darkened the later years of his life. Barlas’s poems range over a wider and more varied field than Adams’s; I will here mention only one of them which has a particular interest for Socialists. It would be difficult to say where Freedom has been more nobly presented than in his “Le Jeune Barbaroux,” a poem which would be known by heart to most of us, if we valued our literature as it deserves. Witness the three closing stanzas:
“Freedom, her arm outstretched but lips firm set,
Freedom, her eyes with tears of pity wet,
But her robes splashed with drops of bloody dew,
Freedom, thy goddess, is our goddess yet,
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,
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,
Specimens of Adams’s and Barlas’s writings were included in “Songs of Freedom,” an anthology of democratic verse which I edited in the early ’nineties in the series then known as the Canterbury Poets. I had hoped that the book might be helpful to the Socialist cause, as well as to the reputation of some of the living writers represented in it, but in this I was disappointed; indeed, the only Socialist from whom I ever heard mention of it was Keir Hardie. Since that time I have often thought what a splendid, if small, collection of Socialist poems, English and American, might be put together if there were any widespread interest in such matters: I mean a collection from which all but the first-class poems would be excluded, and which would certainly not open its gates to many of the ditties which have found their way into some Socialist songbooks.*
For, consider what fine writers there are, who, without unduly stretching the definition of “Socialist,” might be made contributors to such a volume! Starting, say, with Shelley, the greatest of our lyric poets, an anthologist would have the choice of the best Chartist poems—such splendid songs, for instance, as Ebenezer Elliott’s “The People's Anthem”; T. Noel’s “The Pauper’s Drive”; Ebenezer Jones’s “A Coming Cry”; Ernest Jones’s “Song of the Lower Classes” and “Song of the Wage-Slave”; Gerald Massey’s “The Men of ’Forty-eight”; and Robert Brough’s “My Lord Tomnoddy” and “Vulgar Declamation.” Then, coming to times that many of us remember, in addition to William Morris, Walt Whitman, and Carpenter, there are Robert Buchanan with his “Tommie Atkins,” “The Song of the Slain,” and “The Charter’d Companie”; Edwin Markham’s two magnificent poems, “The Sower,” and “The Man with the Hoe” ; Ernest Crosby’s “The Dreamer,” “The Military Creed,” “The Tyrants’ Song,” and “It’s none of our Affair”; and last, but not least, Ernest Bilton’s “Dives and Lazarus,” a gem of satire to which, to my great satisfaction, I helped to give a more permanent standing than the columns of Justice could assure. It is in such a company that Francis Adams and John Barlas would find an honourable place.
But, as I have said, the present mood of the Socialist movement is of a kind which cares but little for its poets and its dreamers. That mood perhaps will pass; anyhow there are a few of us who are content to be of Crosby’ s opinion in this matter, when he makes the poet say:
“I choose to be a dreamer—
A dreamer whose dreams come true.
* * * * *
I can see what is hidden to you—
The army of man
Passing along in review—
The fighters and workers and all, from the rear to the van.
There they go, with their banners and streamer,
The best and the worst;
But lo! the poor dreamers
So I choose to be a dreamer—
A dreamer whose dreams come true.”
Published: The Socialist Review, February 1929