Songs of the Army of the Night/Introduction


That Francis Adams' "Songs of the Army of the Night," a book which is a deliberate challenge and menace to all established opinions on the matters with which it deals, should be now entering on a third and enlarged edition, is an event not devoid of welcome and gladdening significance for those who, in the gloom of the present social turmoil, are looking for the dawn of a brighter and purer day. Originally published in Australia in 1888, the Songs (with a few slight omissions) were reproduced in England in 1890; and in spite of the tacit contempt or open hostility with which they were naturally received by the orthodox press, and a total lack of the indispensable literary log-rolling, they have won a gradual acceptance by sheer virtue of the faith and fire that are at the core of them. In the present issue the lines which were cancelled in 1890 have been mostly restored, while various alterations and additions have been introduced by the author himself, who carefully revised the book for this purpose a short time before his death.

The general intention and object of the "Songs of the Army of the Night" are sufficiently indicated in the author's Preface and Proem. The title itself is a suggestive one—a reminiscence perhaps of that "City of Dreadful Night" which another great democratic poet has depicted; but with the striking difference that the despondent fortitude of the pessimist is here quickened and energised into the fierce resolution of the reformer. The Songs, taken individually, will best speak for themselves; it is not necessary or desirable, in this brief Introduction, to attempt an estimate of their comparative merits or shortcomings. But it is highly important, for a full and just appreciation of these most characteristic and impassioned products of Adams' genius, that something should be said of the very singular personality which everywhere underlies the poems, and is intimately connected with their mingled strength and weakness. In these lyrics, if anywhere, the writer spoke his soul; they are an absolutely faithful and unreserved expression of a certain portion of his feelings.

When Francis Adams died in the autumn of 1893, he was but thirty years old, yet during that short lifetime he had amassed an extraordinary record of poignant and heart-stirring experiences.[1] Gifted with immense natural vitality, both physical and mental, he found himself at an early age the victim of inherited consumption, and his adventurous career, in England, in Australia, and again at the close of his life in England, was the incessant struggle of a proud and heroic spirit against the forces of disease and poverty that were gradually closing around him. "I only heard of Adams' death two days ago," wrote one of his Australian friends.[2] "I cannot tell how much smaller and poorer the world seems to me now he has gone. He was the truest comrade, with all his inward loneliness. The very light of camaraderie shone from his soul. Except that he might accomplish the work laid upon him by his destiny and his hour, there was no care for self in him. And the tragedy of his life and sufferings was, I calmly and firmly believe, the greatest and most dreadful in our literary history. For what the wrongs of the oppressed and dispossessed were to him, let the "Songs of the Army of the Night" bear witness, but what he suffered from physical disease and personal sorrows, let only oblivion keep the knowledge of—what he endured from the tortures of frustrate ambition, we can guess."

It will be readily understood how the natural sensitiveness of an intensely high-strung temperament was accentuated by such suffering and disappointment, until it left its mark both in the exacting fastidiousness of his literary judgments and in the scathing severity of his denunciation of social hypocrisies. This fact will account for much that were else unaccountable, and perhaps in some cases repellent, in the occasionally pitiless invective of these "Songs of the Army of the Night"; on the other hand, the poems bear unmistakable testimony to the passionate tenderness and humanity of the heart which inspired them. Was there ever, since Shelley died, so fiery a hatred of injustice, so eager a sympathy with the cause of the poor and oppressed? In this respect also, Francis Adams' writings are the exact counterpart of his personality. No memory of him will dwell more abidingly in the minds of those who knew him than the occasions when, with magnetic eloquence, he would dilate on the people's wrongs—his beautiful expressive features and large flashing eyes lit up with the glow of a single-hearted life-long enthusiasm.

But the poems are so "unbalanced," says the literary critic, who, with the caution of his kind, is always on his guard against militant writers who "mean business," who have got something to say, and are determined to say it at whatever hazard to delicate academical proprieties. The poems undoubtedly are unbalanced; that is an incidental defect which is accounted for by the circumstances to which I have already alluded. But on the other hand it should be remarked that there is a danger in too much intellectual balance, no less than in too little. We have already far too many balanced literary gentlemen sitting comfortably on the stile, with an equipoise which might move the envy of a Blondin; it is their æsthetic indifferentism, far more than any emotional excess, which is the bane of our present literature. It is therefore not to be regretted that a writer should appear who can voice the passionate resentment of sham philanthropy and sham religion, which is undoubtedly felt by a section, and an increasing section, of English workers,

"With its threat to the robber rich, the proud,
The respectable free". . .

It may be that there is exaggeration, unwisdom, injustice even, in the personal references of some of these poems; but in their general indictment of a pharisaical and selfish class-supremacy, they are essentially true and valuable. The Songs, as their author once told me, are an attempt to do what has never been done before—to express what might be the feelings of a member of the working classes, as he finds out the hollowness (to him, at any rate) of our "culture" and "respectability."

Still less valid, I think, is the technical criticism which would set aside the "Songs of the Army of the Night" as bad poetry and doggerel, because the book contains numerous violations of the customary "laws" of metre and rhyme-sound. The author's omission to conform with these supposed obligations was evidently deliberate, and in harmony with the whole purpose which he had in view; he felt, and felt rightly, that a work which was in substance a direct defiance of orthodox culture must similarly emancipate itself, in expression, from the trammels of orthodox rhyming. The new wine of revolutionary thought cannot be put in the old bottles of academical versification, and those readers who wish to form a fair judgment of the literary value of the poems must have the courage to regard them not from the standpoint of the conventional critic (who invariably fails to appreciate the true significance of any new and genuine poetry), but from that of the author himself, who knew exactly what he had to say, and how he could say it with most effect.

In the case of writings of this sort, the measure of the critic's antipathy is often the measure of the poet's success. It is not suprising that these revolutionary songs have aroused, and will continue to arouse, misunderstanding and reprobation, for they have an incisivə and trenchant quality which seldom fails to make itself felt; whatever else they do, or fail to do, they strike home. The hilt of the dagger may not be carved in the most approved method of ornamentation; but the blade is keen and deadly, and its mark will not be easily concealed. Viewed in this light, many of the phrases and cadences, which according to ordinary canons of art are certainly formless and unmusical, are seen to be appropriate and inevitable; and the reader who turns away from the book on account of these peculiarities will be simply repeating the errors of those literary purists who have been successively unable to read Shelley, unable to read Whitman, unable to read Carpenter—in a word, unable to read any new great writer whose style was as novel and unfamiliar as his ideas.

Yet, all such disabilities being allowed for, it is difficult to believe that any candid reader, who has a true love of poetry in his heart, can fail to appreciate the great literary merits which distinguish the best, if the best only, of these remarkable lyrics, remarkable in all cases for their vigour and audacity, in a considerable number of cases for the highest qualities of song. If anyone cannot see the power and beauty of such poems as "In Trafalgar Square," "One among so Many," "To England," "A South-Sea Islander," and "A Death at Sea," it would be useless to multiply words on the subject. Time will show whether these and other of their author's productions are worthy or unworthy to live. I have said that the "Songs of the Army of the Night" were a faithful expression of "a certain portion" of their author's feelings. It is necessary to make this limitation, because it would be an injustice to Francis Adams to let it be assumed, by those who may not be acquainted with his other writings, that his fiery zeal for social emancipation represents more than one side—albeit a most important one—of his many-sided labours. "I am but a poor devil who tries to touch life at several artistic points," He writes in one of his letters of 1892, "and if I give this one pleasure as a lyrist, and that as a dramatist, and that as a story-teller, and that as a critic, I am content." When quite a boy he had planned a vast cycle of character-sketches, a lifework which was to be realized in a series of poems and tales. "It was my modest little scheme" he continues "to draw types of all the social life of the day. 'Leicester' is the first of the series of novels and tales. Oh, I was going to do as big as Balzac that way! Fancy what a pretty scheme for a jackanapes of eighteen, and to have sweated at it all these years! I finished the last but one of the novels (chronologically) on my way out to Australia. There are three novels to do yet, and about eight short tales."

It may be seen from the appended list of Adams' published writings how great was the amount, and how wide the scope, of the literary effort (not to mention the journalistic work) put forth by him during the last twelve years of his life, six of which (1884-1890) were spent in his visit to Australia. It is as a critic that he has received from his fellow-critics the largest share of praise, doubtless because there is of necessity a more cautious tone in that class of his writings, which gives satisfaction to the "balanced" literary mind. I venture, however, to think that the reviewers are wrong in this estimate of Francis Adams' powers; for his temperament was essentially of the emotional, and not the judicial order, and in spite of the singular brilliancy of certain of his judgments his keenly sensitive and subtle instinct was more often, and more fatally, at fault in his critical than in his poetical productions. On the value of his works as a whole, or of his complete poetical works, so unequal in their merit, it is perhaps too early to express an opinion; for some of his writings on which he himself set most store still remain to be published. But for my own part, I believe that it is in his more impassioned and unrestrained work, such as "Leicester, an Autobiography" and "The Songs of the Army of the Night," that we must look for his real masterpieces; for it is there alone that he wields the great imaginative quality, and the heart of fire, that can triumph over all superficial blemishes and defects.

At any rate we have here a volume of people's poems which deserves to rank with the memorable achievements of democratic literature. Once more, amidst the multitudinous parrot-cries of elegant versifying, comes the arresting call of one who has seen, and suffered, and sympathised a veritable human voice, which speaks direct to the heart of the listener as no "mere literature" has ever spoken. Whatever place may be ultimately assigned him among English authors, it is through these "Songs of the Army of the Night" that the name of Francis Adams will be best loved and longest remembered by the friends of social freedom.

List of Francis Adams's Published Volumes.

Henry and other Tales. Eliott Stock, London, 1884,
(A volume of Poems).

Leicester, an Autobiography. George Redway,
London, 1885.

Australian Essays. Wm. Inglis & Co., Melbourne;
Griffith & Farran, London; 1886, 1s.

Madeline Brown's Murder. Sydney, 1886.

Poetical Works. Muir & Morcom, Brisbane; Griffith
& Farran, London; 1886, 6s.

Songs of the Army of the Night. Sydney, 1888.

Songs of the Army of the Night. English Editions.
Vizetelly & Co., London, 1890; Wm. Reeves, London, 1893.

John Webb's End, a Story of Bush Life. Eden,
Remington & Co., London, 1891, 2s.

The Melbournians. Eden, Remington & Co., London,
1892 (a novel) 3s. 6d.

Australian Life. Chapman & Hall, London, 1893,
(Short Stories) 3s. 6d.

Posthumous Volumes.

The New Egypt. Fisher Unwin, London, 1893, 5s.

Essays in Modernity. Elkin Mathews & John Lane, London,
5s. Shortly.

Songs of the Army of the Night. New and Enlarged
edition, with portrait. Wm. Reeves, London,
1894, Is.

A Child of the Age (a novel.) Elkin Mathews &
John Lane, 3s 6d. Shortly.

The Mass of Christ: a poem. The Labour Press,
Manchester, and Wm. Reeves, London, 3d.

Tiberius: a drama. Shortly.

  1. These cannot here be narrated, but a few biographical facts and dates may serve to explain some of the references in the poems. He was Scotch by extraction, the son of Prof. Leith Adams, a scientist and army surgeon. Born at Malta, where his father's regiment was stationed, on Sept. 27th, 1862, he spent his childhood in England, New Brunswick and Ireland. He was educated at Shrewsbury school (the "Colchester" described in "Leicester, an Autobiography"), and after spending two or three years in Paris and London, became an assistant-master at Ventnor College in 1882. In 1884 he was married and went to Australia, where he busied himself in literary, educational, and political work, and was on the staff of the Sydney Bulletin. His wife having died in Australia his second marriage took place in 1887. In the same year he went on a short voyage to China and Japan. In 1890 he returned to England, much broken in health, and his last two winters were spent in the Riviera and Egypt. He died, at Margate, on September 4th, 1893.
  2. Sydney Jephcott, author of "The Secrets of the South," a volume described by Adams as "the first genuine expression in poetry of Australia."