Poetry Journal

Latest writing / 11 Jul, 2016

‘[L]ove and hate,/ Irreconcilable,/ Yet can mate’: Reading Lesbia Harford’s Collected Poems

Ann Vickery

I feel like both celebrating and, in some respects, mourning the missed opportunity that was available with Oliver Dennis’s edited Collected Poems of Lesbia Harford (2014). This volume brings into print for the first time a good many of Harford’s poems, some particularly significant. It has been a long time since Drusilla Modjeska and Marjorie Pizer’s The Poems of Lesbia Harford (1985), the first major collection of Harford’s poetry, and even longer still to Nettie Palmer’s first slim volume in 1941. Whereas Modjeska and Pizer’s collection made about one-third of Harford’s poetry available, Dennis’s volume includes just over half, with about a third having not been in print earlier. Moreover, while the selections of Modjeska and Pizer, on the one hand, and Dennis, on the other, overlap, there are a number of poems that appear in one volume and not the other. Unfortunately, The Poems of Lesbia Harford has been long out of print and is not readily available. The extensive introduction by Modjeska to that 1985 volume introduced a new public to Harford’s writing and explored the historical aspects of Harford’s aesthetics and politics. It tackled the lack of attention to Harford, with Modjeska noting, ‘Perhaps the overriding reason for her obscurity for so many years is not that she is a poet who speaks with a woman’s voice, though I am sure that has something to do with it, but that her writing does not sit comfortably in the perceived traditions and discourses of Australian poetry’ (4).

Since Modjeska’s statement, Harford now appears in most anthologies of Australian poetry. Yet while contemporaries like Kenneth Slessor have attracted edited critical collections, Harford’s poetry still remains relatively overlooked in 2016. In some respects, this anthology perpetuates a framing of Harford that undertakes a dual (and interrelated) operation of both gendering and marginalising her work. The by-line by Les Murray on the front cover declares ‘I consider Ms Harford one of the two finest female poets so far seen in Australia’. The absurd and outdated gendering of this by-line is apparent if we applied it to Murray himself: ‘I consider Mr Murray one of the two finest male poets so far seen in Australia’. The cover itself is in the colour lilac (a favoured flower of Harford’s) with a grainy, fade-away image of Harford’s face. It both foregrounds Harford’s femininity (and her feminism by its very purpleness) while linking the poems to the ghostly figure of a poet.

Dennis provides both a foreword by Murray and an introduction. The choice of Murray is understandable. An internationally renowned poet himself, Murray included Harford in Hell and After (2005), a sequel, or rather prequel to his much earlier Fivefathers anthology (1994). In Fivefathers, Murray seemed to establish a literary primogeniture, noting that the five fathers of Slessor, Roland Robinson, David Campbell, James McAuley, and Frances Webb, along with two or three others, were ‘the primary figures in the finest period our poetry has ever seen’ (Hell xi). Hell and After recovers ‘four of the best Australian poets from before that magical era’ (xi) of the 1930s to the 1960s, with Murray undertaking key recuperative work of Harford by featuring eighty-six of her poems. That said, his distinction between poetic cohorts is a rather artificial one, for Harford and Mary Gilmore, were clearly contemporaries of Slessor.

In his foreword, Murray refers to Lesbia Harford as ‘Ms Harford’ with the rationale: ‘I can’t bring myself to call her plain “Harford”, as if she were a criminal’ (xviii). In using the term ‘criminal’, Murray invokes law and social norms. Murray rather unnecessarily speculates that Harford’s father may have sought to escape the discomfort of ‘a strong female household’ (xvii), although he overlooks the fact that Harford’s mother established a Nurses’ Home only after her husband left Melbourne for Western Australia. With financial failure merely the excuse, it is the abnormality of a ‘strong female household’ that generates family breakdown. Viewing Harford alongside Judith Wright as two of the finest female poets in Australia, Murray suggests that Harford has an ‘arguably superior ability to reason in verse’ (xviii). The implication is that this is perhaps unusual in a female poet and does no favours to Wright (who is ‘kinder to physical stereotypes’ and ‘has mystical poems of most unearthly intensity’ (xviii)). Harford’s poem, ‘Ours was a friendship in secret, my dear’, is declared ‘the finest Australian poem of World War I’, with Murray emphasising its emotional impact: ‘I can never read it aloud without choking up’ (xviii). Here, the challenge of controlling feeling and keeping up a ‘proper’ public face is applauded. Lastly, Murray praises the honesty of her writing but makes the important point that her openness in matters of love and sexuality was due to the fact that the poems were not written with publication in mind. In this he aligns her with Emily Dickinson, who viewed publication as ‘the Auction/ Of the mind of Man’ (351) and who did not want to ‘reduce […] Human Spirit/To Disgrace of Price’ (352). Murray’s alignment of Harford to Dickinson is a canny one, but there is no awareness of how his framing of Harford, in many respects, replicates the critical reception of Dickinson as a woman poet who is something of an anomaly.

In calling her work ‘occasionally twee’ (xviii), Murray suggests that Harford falls every now and again into a formulaic, simplistic sentimentality. He is joined in this by Oliver Dennis, who suggests that there is a ‘seeming slightness’ (xx) to her writing, which is perhaps accentuated by its ‘folk elements’ (xxii). He contends that Harford ‘never gave a moment’s thought to abstract notions of culture or nationhood’ (xix) but instead was ‘true to her own experience’. Harford’s value then, is to lie in the transparent, confessional elements of a private life. As ‘a distinctive brand of pure, incidental song’ (xix), Harford’s poetry transcends the social world. Dennis completely elides the numerous socialist poems in the collection, such as ‘A Strike Rhyme’ (97) or socialist-feminist poems like ‘An Improver’ (82) that are explicitly political, even in their title. He also contradicts himself somewhat in discerning that paradigmatic cultural and political change (brought about by elements such as World War I and the Suffrage movement) shaped Harford’s work. As I suggest in my chapter on Harford in The Intimate Archive: Journeys through Private Papers, Harford’s significance as a poet is how she explored the political through intimacy and the interior (82), thus demonstrating how the personal is political in a period of first-wave feminism. Moreover, her invocation of folk song draws upon a long tradition of collective awareness-raising, particularly in regard to class. Dennis suggests that Harford ‘never quite regard[ed] herself as a poet’ (xx), almost purposively misreading Harford’s statement to Percival Searle, ‘You see, I take my poetry seriously and I am in no hurry to be read’ (Quoted by Dennis, xx). Dennis suggests that Harford had ‘no real belief in the importance of art, as such—life and feeling mattered more to her’ (xx). This is plainly contradicted by one of the more important inclusions in the volume, ‘I have put off myself awhile’, which foregrounds language as the most important element to her own sense of identity:

I have put off myself awhile 
And lead another kind of life 
Than that where dreams were quickly deeds,-- 
Now I am wife.

But since those days were blessed days
I’ve a poor dream about the past.
I’ll set it down in words. To words 
I fall at last. (107)

In likening Harford’s poetry to ‘pure, incidental song’, Dennis suggests that it is also best read ‘with the uncritical patience of a child’ for the ‘qualities [to] slowly come into view’ (xxvi). Just as Harford is reduced to an unworldly poet, her preferred reader should likewise be unsophisticated. In her introduction to The Poems of Lesbia Harford, Modjeska makes the important suggestion that Harford may have been influenced by Frederick Sinclaire (who ran the Free Religious Fellowship circle of which Harford was a member for a period) who advocated that religion should speak the language of ‘ordinary people’ (33). Yet, this does not mean that Harford’s poem is the spontaneous outpourings of the soul, rather that Harford thought that poetry should be accessible and in a shared language.

While Dennis suggests that Harford examines ‘small, forgotten subjects’ (xxiii), he does not consider how Harford reconceptualises the ordinary in modern life. Much like Virginia Woolf, Harford attends to and transforms the otherwise trivial, familiar, and taken for granted. Dennis aligns Harford’s focus on the small to John Shaw Neilson, yet while Neilson wrote of rural life, Harford examines the objects of suburban city life. Dennis’s volume is particularly valuable in making accessible some of the poems that capture urban experience. In ‘One Man’s Meat’, Harford even contrasts attitudes towards rainfall between country folk and those in the city. Generating a visual analogy between the lines of crop and the ‘thousands of city workers/ [who] Lounge in a row’, she contrasts crop growth to the ‘curse’ of labour and pay having to cease until the sun reappears (101). In ‘Coloured scraps of paper’, ‘Tram-cheques and Train-tickets,/ Squares of blue and red’ are likened to the ephemeral blossoms of the ‘short-lived rose’ (36). And in ‘This is a pretty road’, Harford describes the dimensions of the city street with ‘wires overhead/ Like webs of spiders/ And underneath them go/ A million riders’ (84). Under the ‘tracery” of wire’, ‘trams go speeding’ (84). Perhaps a poem most like Shaw Neilson’s is ‘Tonight when woes are manifold’ which anthropomorphises the Sydney coastline to that of a hand, ‘the fingers of this land/ And all its hollows’ (86). Yet ‘Lavender and Neutral Bay/ And all the points of black and gold […]/ Are not like the hands I used to kiss/ Dear fragile human hands of clay,--’ (86).

When Dennis equates Harford’s work to Beatrix Potter’s as intimating ‘a longing to escape constraints’ (xxv), I wonder whether he might not have meant Beatrice Potter, later Beatrice Webb, as he makes the analogy after referring to Harford’s documentation of her factory experience. In her introduction to The Poems of Lesbia Harford, Modjeska compares Harford’s stamina at factory labour to Potter’s graphic diary account of a mere two days in a factory (16). In eliding the scholarship of Modjeska, Jeff Sparrow, and myself, Dennis’s introduction transposes Harford from a radical political and literary tradition in Australia and depoliticises Harford’s writing of freedom, whether it be from capitalism or of advocating free love. Yet in selecting his poems, he shows us how Harford was harbouring a revolutionary spirit as far back as 1913 in ‘Oh hall of music, promise fair’ where she writes: ‘May harmony, the heavenly norm,/ Here ever sounding in our ears/ Rouse us to world reform’ (6).

While I am critical of Dennis’s introduction, I commend his decision to preserve Harford’s punctuation, particularly her use of a comma followed by a dash. Harford’s eccentric punctuation recalls that of Emily Dickinson, who was a particular fan of the dash and whose work also underwent ‘normalising’ at the hands of editors. Dennis is to be commended too for his table of contents, which lists poems either by title or, if none, by their first line (the failure to list poem titles in Modjeska and Pizer edition made it difficult to locate certain poems). Dennis arranges the poems chronologically but decides not to date them. Importantly, he ‘corrects’ the chronological placement of some poems that have previously appeared in Modjeska and Pizer’s collection such as ‘Body and Soul’ (55), placing the latter at an earlier moment of 1917. As I discuss in The Intimate Archive, Harford was economical when it came to her exercise books, occasionally taking a blank space after an earlier poem to write a later, new one. While Harford occasionally reworked poems, dating them enables an understanding into the spikes and troughs in Harford’s career. It also helps to contextualise certain poems against cultural events such as armistice or a strike, or more personal events like a lover’s sudden marriage or a friend leaving town. That said, Dennis does locate a couple of later poems, ‘The Changing Hills’ (Panton Hills)(116) and ‘O you, dear trees, you have learned so much of beauty’ (Montrose)(116). He also, importantly, features multiple versions of poems, such as the three poems on menstruation (‘Periodicity’ (49, 51, 56)) and the two poems entitled ‘Lovers Parted (108, 110). These give a sense of their significance for Harford and that poems were not terminuses but part of a larger ongoing process. Dennis suggests that Harford does not want them to ‘feel too finished’ (xiii), thus endowing them with the sense of ‘hanging in the air’ (xxii), or of being ‘between’ that so marks modernity (xxiii).

In providing the reader with a large number of previously unpublished poems, the Collected Poems opens up our understanding of Harford’s poetics. An early poem, ‘Geisha’ (3) gives us a sense of just how long Harford was interested in exoticising Oriental tropes. There is more of a range of poems dealing with wartime and the sense of an alignment between geographic and mental separation: ‘For I dream of friendship and you reverence war’ (‘Separation’ 17). Significantly, the Collected Poems contains poems that shed further light on Harford’s negotiation of same-sex desire. Poems like ‘Rather like an Amazon schooled by Athena’ (2) and ‘Hero Worship’ (3) give a sense of the powerful crush Harford had on Katie Lush, with Lush viewed as having an almost mythic status. Harford begins to imagine the relationship as one of sisterhood, which still gives a sense of a mediated and toned down desire. The distance is still there, but more homely: ‘Maybe across the river/ Sister trees sing just such songs for Katie’s ears tonight’ (3). There are also poems that are likely to be addressed to Nettie Palmer such as ‘Development’. Palmer would write in ‘Votive’ of a ‘slender maid’ with ‘shadowy eyes’ whose ‘living grow in mystery/ Above the human’ (54–55). Harford’s ‘Development’ discerns:

Your friend writes verse to you
Full of Praise […]

She calls you ‘more than human,’ 
And I grow 
Heartsick,--my dearest, 
Dearest, be not so.

You are my friend more surely 
When I praise 
Dear imperfections 
Of your later days. (17)

In response to Palmer’s poetry collection, The South Wind, Harford seems to have penned ‘She hates the North wind’ with the lines: ‘When she was a little girl/ The South Wind kissed her’ (28). ‘To an Idealist’ is written before 3rd December 1915 and is around the time Nettie and Harford were writing poems to each other. It gives a sense of the often contradictory complex of emotion:

All that I scribble 
her eyes must see,
Who rends the body 
And soul of me.

What might I scribble 
If she weren’t there? 
Many a secret 
Would I lay bare.

Then might she wonder 
That love and hate, 
Yet can mate. (39)

There is, also, a range of poems that give insight into Harford’s negotiation of her failed love affair with Guido Baracchi, and more broadly on anxieties and presumptions underwriting heterosexual relationships. Poems such as ‘I have no force to hold my love’ (72) are riven with self-doubt over a lack of feminine prettiness to maintain male affection. Other poems, such as ‘I am afraid’, demonstrate how such doubt is fed by broader wisdom that the love of men can be fickle:

I am afraid 
He’ll someday stop loving me. 
All of them say 
He’ll someday stop loving me,-- 
That’s how he’s made. (72)

Such poems give a context for one of Harford’s best-known poems, ‘I’m like all lovers, wanting love to be’, which reasons through unequal love to a position of free love. Against the anxiety of waiting for a beloved’s return and yearning for a passion that would endure sacrifice and hardship (to ‘walk seven miles’ to ‘kiss my shadow on the blind’ (72)), Harford writes of a more mature love where the individual spirit is not subsumed. She declares, ‘You’re not my slave, I wish you not to be/ I love yourself and not your love for me’ (73). While the beloved wants a ‘woman for your bride’, the speaker claims a more revolutionary love of the Other:

Oh, make no woman of me, you who can,
Or I will make a husband of a man.

By my unwomanly love that sets you free
Love all myself, but least the woman in me. (73)

The difficulties of closure are found in poems like ‘Every night I hurry home to see’ (87), which continues a waiting for the beloved to act. The rationalisation behind ‘I’m like all lovers’ can be found in ‘Lovers Parted [I]’ (108) and ‘The Scrapheap’ (88). The former draws attention to human imperfections while the latter disparages Cupid and looks towards a ‘fairer deity’ that connects human love to the natural world: ‘And the sky can never be gray above me,/ Or birds stop singing the whole year through’ (88). A second version of ‘Lovers Parted [II]’ suggests that while the past should not have ‘power to change our lives’ (110), it should be remembered for its positive elements. While such poems give a sense of dignity to the rejected lover, others like ‘A Deity’ (112), suggest that remorse for causing hurt is required before forgiveness.

Dennis’s collection also includes a number of poems where Harford tackles the difficulties of married life and the modern experience of juggling a working and home life. ‘I’d like to spend long hours at home’ (106) demonstrates a yearning for a child of her own rather than teaching a multitude, and of having the leisure to shop and fuss over a husband’s tea. ‘I want this thing and that’ foregrounds the mundanity of married life (‘not Romance, not Hate, not/ “Love to the knife”/ But life’) and desire transposed to domestic objects (‘A pudding-bowl, a saucepan,/ And a hat/ For Pat’ (106). The smallness of the line accentuates the sparseness of the speaker’s life. The poem ‘I have a beautiful house’ captures the sense of burden of a home, which she likens to a snail’s shell: ‘The notable part of me/ Is the house where I dwell’ (122). Harford notes the desire for a ‘house to bear/ On my back till I die’ (122). Such a feeling is one still familiar to the difficulties of wanting to own a house while feeling limited by the weight of such financial commitment. In these poems, Harford is one of the earliest Australian poets to capture the stresses of suburban life, generated largely by a capitalist economy.

Dennis argues that Harford saw ‘herself as a kind of secular visionary’ (xxv). Harford’s relationship to religion was one of scepticism yet continual negotiation. ‘The Nuns and the Lillies’ views the power of nature over the theological: ‘The lillies in the convent walk […]/ have forgotten baby Christs,/ It seems to me./ They laugh and toss their royal heads in ecstasy’ (77). Poems like ‘New Window, St John’s Hawksburn’ refers to husband Pat Harford’s work with stained glass windows, and views religion as ‘the excuse’ for beauty (113). Other poems like ‘A Deity’ work through human relations by transposing it to the spiritual. Yet Dennis’s volume does not include poems like ‘And is love very strong where honour rules?’ which ends with the definitive line, ‘After all/I’d rather be a lover than a saint’ (Poems 107).

With Dennis’s Collected Poems, we now have a large range of Harford’s poetry available. I believe that both his and the Modjeska and Pizer volume are worth reading together, as they feature different but often comparable selections of Harford’s work. Both feature poems where Harford invokes nature to give insight into the internal self; in the Modjeska and Pizer collection, this includes ‘My heart is a pomegranate full of sweet fancies’ (49) while in Dennis’s, there is ‘On the grass in the Oaktree I lie’ (14). The inclusion of certain poems in Dennis’s Collected Poems shows Harford in a more juvenile mode (the early Johnny poems) and verging on the obsessive (with her later dwelling on the name of ‘Lesbia Baracchi’ in ‘Charles Lamb blasts out his litany of names’ (118)). This is important to demythologise Lesbia Harford as a heroic poet, first constructed by Nettie Palmer and Baracchi, and then by later editors and scholars. As I have suggested, Dennis’s introduction does its own mythologising turn in eliding Harford’s activism and socialist politics (as a member of the International Workers of the World and early leading female figure in the clothing trade union). Both Modjeska and Pizer would, however, no doubt agree with Dennis’s view that ‘Harford’s writing is striking in its refusal to please, to be anything other than itself’ (xix). It is perhaps best, then, to return to Harford’s poetry and let it speak for itself. To echo Harford once more: ‘To words/ I fall at last’ (107)

Oliver Dennis, editor. Collected Poems: Lesbia Harford. Nedlands: UWA Publishing, ISBN 9781742585352. RRP $29.99

Works Cited

→ Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. R.W. Franklin. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1999.

→ Harford, Lesbia. The Poems of Lesbia Harford. Ed. Drusilla Modjeska and Marjorie Pizer. North Ryde: Sirius Books, 1985.

→ Modjeska, Drusilla. ‘Introduction’, The Poems of Lesbia Harford. Ed. Drusilla Modjeska and Marjorie Pizer. North Ryde: Sirius Books, 1985. 1–38.

→ Murray, Les, ed. Fivefathers: Poets of the Pre-Academic Era. Manchester: Carcanet, 1994.

→ Murray, Les. Hell and After: Four Early English-language Poets of Australia. Manchester: Carcanet, 2005.

→ Palmer, Nettie. The South Wind. London: John G. Wilson, 1914.

→ Sparrow, Jeff. ‘“Signed up in a rebel band”: Lesbia Harford Re-Viewed’, Hecate 32.1 (2006): 8–35.

→ Vickery, Ann. Stressing the Modern: Cultural Politics in Australian Women’s Poetry. Cambridge, UK: Salt, 2007.

→ Vickery, Ann. ‘Lesbia Harford’s Romantic Legacy’, The Intimate Archive: Journeys through Private Papers. Maryanne Dever, Sally Newman, and Ann Vickery. Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2009. 81–132.