Review: Jeff Sparrowon Lesbia Harford

Render it barely: Collected Poems: Lesbia Harford

When Lesbia Harford died in 1927, she left behind three thick and neatly-lined exercise books full of handwritten poetry. These, now housed in the Mitchell Library, provided the basis for Nettie Palmer’s The Poems of Lesbia Harford (1941) and, in 1985, Drusilla Modjeska and Marjorie Pizer’s expanded collection, published under the same title.

Now we have a new and even more comprehensive edition, courtesy of Oliver Dennis and UWA Press. In his introduction to Collected Poems, Dennis writes:

Of the nearly four hundred poems in manuscript, just over half that number are reproduced here; of these, a third or so … have not, to my knowledge appeared in print previously.

Bringing so much writing by an important but under-appreciated Australian poet into the public arena is a major achievement, for which both editor and publisher should be congratulated. It is, however, regrettable that the new volume diminishes Harford’s work with an editorial framing that feels unpleasantly gendered.

Much of what we know about Harford’s life comes from research conducted by Pizer, a former Communist Party member personally acquainted with some of Harford’s circle. Dennis bases his introduction almost exclusively upon this material, ignoring, for instance, Ann Vickery’s recent study in Stressing the Modern (2007). Perhaps lacking Pizer and Modjeska’s political sympathies, he interprets it in ways that are frustrating and tendentious. For example, he writes:

Whereas many poets of the time – Mary Gilmore or Banjo Paterson, for example – wrote with an eye to establishing an Australian literature, Harford clearly never gave a moment’s thought to abstract notions of culture or nationhood … She instead found her place out of view, where she was free to articulate a distinctive brand of pure, incidental song.

It is true that, in her poetry, Harford does not seek to build a national culture. But that does not mean she never ‘gave a moment’s thought to abstract notions of culture or nationhood’. For several years, Harford belonged to the Free Religious Fellowship of Frederick Sinclaire, a man who urged his followers ‘to turn their eyes from the past to the future, and from Europe to Australia’. That style of cultural nationalism was embraced, in differing ways, by many of the literary intellectuals with whom Harford interacted: people like Louis Esson, Frank Wilmot and (in particular) Nettie Palmer. The absence of similar sentiments in Harford’s work represents not a lack of thought but a political disagreement: a rejection of the gradualism of the Victorian Socialist Party (the organisation most of her friends supported) for the aggressive internationalism of the Industrial Workers of the World.

‘Harford did not try to build a reputation,’ continues Dennis;

she kept her poems to herself as a rule, and was better known for her social and political activism. She published very little in her lifetime, apparently never quite regarding herself as a poet – only as someone who wrote poetry.

For evidence that Harford did not view herself as a poet, Dennis cites her correspondence with anthologist Percival Serle. But the letter he quotes actually says something quite different. Harford wrote:

I would not wish any selection to be made from a small body of poems by a person not conversant with my work, even if William Hazlitt himself were to be the selector. You see, I take my poetry seriously and am in no hurry to be read.

Later, she adds, ‘I hope old age will bring me leisure for more sustained effort. A poet should still be good at seventy or eighty.’

Clearly, then, she did regard herself as a poet – and, in fact, often shared her poems with friends. In his notes on Harford, her former lover Guido Baracchi says she would regularly include verses in her letters; the Palmer papers show Nettie commenting on Harford poems she has received.

‘Harford had a keen aesthetic sense,’ says Dennis,

but no real belief in the importance of art, as such – life and feeling mattered more to her. She enjoyed brass bands, and was content to remain on the fringes of Melbourne’s literary circles, through her friendship with Frank Wilmot and Nettie Palmer.

Was she on the fringes of Melbourne’s literary circles? No, not really. The local literary scene was small but Harford participated forcefully in almost all the available forums where books and ideas were debated. She belonged to the university Historical Association, joined the attempt to set up the magazine Australia Felix, frequented Andrade’s Bookshop, and so on. Alongside Frank Wilmot and the Palmers, her immediate associates included Hilda and Louis Esson, Esmonde Higgins, Esmond Keogh, Stewart MacKay, R. H. Long, Mary Fullerton, Gerald Byrne, Bernard O’Dowd, Guido Baracchi, Marie Pitt, Frederick Macartney, Katharine Susannah Prichard, the philosophy lecturer Katie Lush, and many others.

The claim about her indifference to art is particularly odd. Nettie Palmer admired Harford’s paintings to the extent of suggesting that ‘if she had been physically strong, she would have been a striking decorative artist’; Bernard Lewis argued ‘the post-impressionist movement in Melbourne came into existence as a result of the discussions between [William] Frater, [Arnold] Shore and [Lesbia’s husband Pat] Harford’. Lesbia’s brother Esmond later claimed that Pat’s ideas came from Lesbia.

Obviously, this volume is not a biography. But there is more at stake than historical pedantry. Harford was a writer and an activist. She was also an intellectual – and that is barely apparent from Dennis’ introduction. His suggestion that she privileged ‘life’ and ‘feeling’ over ‘art’ positions the poet as an untutored naïf, a kind of manic pixie dream girl driven by instinct rather than intellect:

To an extent no longer possible in England or America, the work of both poets [i.e. Harford and John Shaw Neilson] remained largely untouched by sophisticated external influences and operated within a tradition of song-making, though intriguingly, Harford’s poems have something of the disjointed or ‘between’ quality that T. S. Eliot diagnosed, at around the same time, as a symptom of modernity. Harford also shared Shaw Neilson’s gift for examining small, forgotten subjects in a way that lends her poetry an unusually well-developed sense of continuity – her choice of subject matter was, to some degree, simply a peg for purity of utterance.

It is distinctly strange to describe a university graduate who, as early as 1922, is quoting Freud (‘Lovers Parted’) as ‘untouched by external influences’ – but it is stranger still to dismiss so casually the subject matter of a poet writing on such a breadth of topics, ranging from menstruation to the War Precautions Act. Yet in his preface, Les Murray echoes the point: ‘[Harford’s] idealism tends to be broad-gauged and conventional,’ he says.

Conventional? Untouched by external influences?

Despite the crippling heart condition that eventually killed her, Harford graduated in law (while also studying philosophy and literature) at a time when female students were rare. She spent her life among writers and theorists. Her brother Esmond acknowledged that, even when Harford was an activist, her closest friends were ‘intellectuals … of the working class’. Harford’s workmate May Francis describes going with her to Katharine Susannah Prichard’s cottage in Emerald to argue about ‘the class struggle and the social revolution throughout the night’. Harford undoubtedly read Guido Baracchi’s copies of A. R. Orage’s New Age; we also know she saw the editions of Wyndham Lewis’s Blast brought back from Europe by her brother.

The poem ‘We climbed that hill’ illustrates her mind at work. It describes a walk with Baracchi, during which the poet admires the seaside landscape. But her appreciation of nature gives way to a debate over philosophical method.

You still proclaim the far
Eternal unity of things that are
Like Plato and the mountains. I prefer
Inchoate beauty, for my part aver
Plurality essential, am content
To find a gain in difference, in a while
Admit there’s gain in union. Argument
Recurs …

‘She would never concede anything that she did not thoroughly agree,’ said Baracchi, many years later. ‘She’d just contradict it.’

Imagine a male Harford – a philosophy-quoting lawyer turned proletarian activist, who writes verse debating the politics of Ramiro de Maeztu (‘Do you remember still the little song’). Does anyone doubt that this hypothetical figure would be discussed in terms of his ideas as much as his ‘purity of utterance’? Yet, as a woman – and a woman who often wrote love poetry – Harford’s ostensible simplicity (what Dennis calls her ‘distinctive brand of pure, incidental song’) is dubbed artless rather than recognised as an intellectual and political strategy.

We can begin to recover Harford’s originality through a little comparison. In 1914, Melbourne University polarised between the vast majority of students who supported the aggressive patriotism accompanying the outbreak of war and a tiny minority who did not. As the most visible representative of the latter, Harford clashed repeatedly and publicly with the young Robert Menzies, the acknowledged leader of the conservative bloc. As it happens, Menzies, too, was writing poetry, some of which appeared alongside his patriotic articles in the Melbourne University Magazine. His ‘Sonnet (written on a twentieth birthday)’ runs:

So thou art twenty – twenty years gone by
And but a brief twelvemonth since last to thee
We raised the birthday toast; what was to be
We knew not, and across the world’s fair sky
We saw but Hope’s bright blue. Who dared to sigh
With dull foreboding? But behold, men see
Grim Mars in dreadful blood-stained majesty,
And weep to hear the death-gorged Eagle’s cry
So to unveil the future none may dare;
Bold would he be who spoke of peace today,
When a full thousand bugles loudly blare
And war-wolves roam abroad to hunt their prey,
Ye, though the clouds have come, to thee we raise
Another birthday toast – ‘To Happier Days!’

A few months later, Harford wrote a poem that offers an striking contrast.

If you have loved a brave story
Tell it but rarely;
And, with due faith in its glory,
Render it barely.

Then must the listener, hearing
Your tale of wonder
Let his own hoping and fearing
Tear him asunder

We have here a statement of method, an overt rejection of the aesthetic manifested in Menzies’ sonnet. Obviously, Menzies wants to ‘tell a brave story’ in a piece about youth coming of age in the shadow of war. But rather than rendering it barely, he stuffs his sonnet with death-gorged eagles and roaming war-wolves and all the detritus of late Edwardian militarism, producing a poem that simply tells its student readers what they already know.

Dennis rightly suggests that ‘the seeming slightness of [Harford’s] writing has not helped its cause’. But in the poem above Harford explains that slightness. She is, she says, paring back her writing to the point of ambiguity so as to tear her readers apart. Drusilla Modjeska argues that, while often regarded as ‘frail and poignant’, Harford’s poetry is actually ‘tough and clear minded’. The last line in ‘If you have loved a brave story’ underscores the point, as Harford describes successful writing as producing not only a sudden effect but also one that is explicitly violent. Indeed, unexpected violence is a common trope throughout her poems. As she writes elsewhere, ‘terror crouches always at the heart of things’.

The gulf separating Menzies from Harford might be aesthetic but it is also political. In October 1915, Harford explained in ‘Deliverance through art’:

I will not rush with great wings gloriously
Against the sky
While poor men sit in holes, unbeautiful,
Unsouled, and die

Here Harford seems to be rejecting both poetry and art in favour of activism. But the lines are better understood as a dismissal of a certain kind of poetry and a certain kind of art. ‘She wanted to ditch the bourgeois world altogether,’ explained Baracchi, many years later. ‘Even in things like music there was a rejection of the old, she got quite hostile to classical music.’

In his introduction, Dennis notes that Harford ‘enjoyed brass bands’, but he misses the significance of that preference. Rather than a lack of sophistication, Harford’s enthusiasm for street music comes from her understanding of both art and politics. In ‘Street Music’, she writes:

And the people walk with their heads held high
Whether or not they’ve a penny
And the music’s there as the bandsmen know
For the poor though the poor are many

For the music’s free, and the music’s bold.
It cannot really be bought and sold.

She values popular music for its simplicity and its accessibility, but also for its resistance to any straightforward appropriation – which is precisely the claim she makes for her own writing.

Dennis argues that Harford criticised polemic in poetry and sought to avoid it in her own work. Certainly, in the letter to Serle, Harford says that she is no ‘Bolshevist’ in verse and that she does ‘not think poetry or fiction should be consciously propa[ga]ndised’. Yet Harford also wrote a poem entitled ‘Revolution’. How to explain this seeming contradiction?

Crucially, the correspondence with Serle took place in 1926, when ‘Bolshevism’ signified something quite different to its meaning in 1918. By the final years of Harford’s life, official communism was beginning to cohere in Australia. The differences between it and the political organisations to which Harford had belonged (the Industrial Workers of the World and its immediate successors) were becoming more apparent. Indeed, that evolution helps explain the later neglect of Harford as a political poet. She espoused an aesthetic that could not be easily assimilated to the models of left-wing writing that dominated the twentieth century – in particular, the socialist realism adopted and privileged by the Communist Party from the mid-thirties.

Given the socialist realist emphasis on working class life and struggle, we would be excused for identifying Harford as some kind of antecedent. As May Francis explained, ‘she had turned away from the dullness and stupidity of middle-class people and middle-class conventions to take her place with workers as a worker.’ Harford’s support for (and membership of) the Industrial Workers of the World is well known – but she was also briefly an official in the Federated Clothing Trade Union. As a result, as Anne Vickery points out, her factory poems are ‘never sentimental and their speaker is usually one among the factory workers’ – something that distinguishes them from the few other contemporaneous Australian poems of industrial work.

Despite that, Harford’s poems operate quite differently to later communist writing. Socialist realists were expected to present readers with straightforward solutions to their social oppression, usually expressed in the voice of an exemplary character. Where such writing conveyed moral and political lessons, Harford’s poems rely upon ambiguity (‘…for my part aver / plurality essential’). Again, she explains her method:

My mission in the world
Is to prolong
Rapture, by turning it into song.

A song of liberty
Bound by no rule!
No marble meaning’s mine
Fixed for a school,

My singing ecstasy
Winged for the flight,
Each will hear differently
And hear aright.

Rather than a ‘marble meaning’ delivered in the form of lesson, it is the audience’s subjectivity that allows its members to ‘hear aright’, in a poetry that produces its political effects dialectically rather than didactically. As Vickery says, Harford strove for a ‘modernist poetics [that] was also politically and ethically charged’, one that exploits the contradictions in the reader’s consciousness (his ‘hoping and fearing’) to reveal truths that are unsettling, even painful (which is why they ‘tear him asunder’).

You can see the method at work in another of her oft-cited works. In September 1917, in the midst of the New South Wales general strike – probably the most intense political crisis in Australian history – she and Baracchi discussed Frederick Macartney’s Commercium, a collection of mock-heroic poems about the business world. Harford objected to Macartney’s whole project: his notion that commerce – for better or worse, a manifestation of modernity – could be so glibly dismissed. As she said to Baracchi, she could not hate the factories in which she worked, since they were the material out of which a better world might yet be constructed. In response to Commercium, she wrote:

Into old rhyme
The new words come but shyly
Here’s a brave man
Who sings of commerce dryly.

Swift-gliding cars
Through town and country winging,
Like cigarettes,
Are deemed unfit for singing.

Into old rhyme
New words come tripping slowly.
Hail to the time
When they possess it wholly.

The task of the poet – particularly the political poet – is neither to dismiss nor to berate what exists, but rather to understand it, to recognise the inner potential for change. The writer does not achieve her ends by external ‘propaganda’ but by teasing out existing contradictions. That is the basis of her rejection of ‘Bolshevism’ in verse.

The incompatibility of Harford’s dialectical method with the exhortatory style most theoretically developed in socialist realism should be obvious. Her politics ensured that she never found readers on the Right, but they also excluded her from the canon of a Left that, throughout most of the twentieth century, saw Harford’s writing as a curious anomaly. It is not, then, a coincidence that the subsequent rediscovery of her work correlated with the collapse of the Old Left and (to a lesser extent) the Old Right.


It is, perhaps, symptomatic of the Old Left’s political defeat that newer readings of Harford focus less on her political commitments and more on her treatment of sexuality, particularly in the erotic poems written about Katie Lush. ‘I can’t feel the sunshine,’ Harford wrote in April 1915:

Or see the stars aright
For thinking of her beauty
And her kisses bright.

Love and desire run through all the poems, something that again distinguished Harford from the often prudish socialist realists. Dennis notes how Harford ‘frequently plays on conflicting desires of wanting to be wanted and wanting to be strong and apart’ and ‘portrays love as an agony she longs to escape’. This contradiction extends to her frequent use of romantic or sexual metaphors for her ideological commitments: the revolution is her ‘lovely love’ who is ‘bent with lashes’ as ‘from blackness into blackness / she walks forlorn’. Vickery also identifies, in the factory poems, the ‘erotic politics at work, in which political resistance and female pleasure are revealed to be interrelated’, an intriguing insight that warrants further investigation.

Too often, however, the discussions of sexuality in Harford’s writing are glibly reductive. Les Murray’s preface to the new collection provides a depressing example:

Readers who discover Harford’s poetry delight in its ease with love affairs with either sex – so untypical of verse from the early twentieth century – quickly come to see that name Lesbia as a one-word explanation of her muse, but not how she got away with her honesty. The answer to that lies in lack of publication during her lifetime. Bisexuality, like lesbianism, was never illegal but, like other kinds of gay writing, it had to wait for posterity to furnish unconstrained readers, even in the grimly revolutionary circles Harford frequented.

The reference to the ‘grimly revolutionary circles Harford frequented’ reveals more about Murray’s politics than Harford’s. Has there ever been a less grim political organisation than the Industrial Workers of the World, whose larrikin members signaled their creed with the cheerful blasphemy: ‘Hallelujah I’m a bum!’? But let’s leave that aside.

In fact, the archives show that Harford did share at least some of her Katie Lush poems with her friends, without concern about ‘getting away’ with her honesty. As I have argued elsewhere, in 1914 passionate – even erotic – relationships between women were not proscribed in the way that Murray seems to think. In certain settings – particularly educational institutions (Lush was Harford’s tutor) – women could proclaim their love for each other, praise each other’s beauty and even kiss without necessary stigma. Indeed, a few years earlier, Nettie Palmer had written very similar poetry about their mutual friend Christian Jollie Smith.

In her study of passionate friendships between the seventeenth century and the onset of the Great War, Lillian Faderman points out that:

The novels and diaries and correspondence of these periods consistently showed romantic friends opening their souls to each other and speaking a language that was in no way different from the language of heterosexual love: they pledged to remain ‘faithful’ forever, to be in ‘each other’s thoughts constantly’, to live together and even to die together. What surprised me most about these romantic friendships was that society appeared to condone them rather than to view them as disruptive of the social structure.

The Lush poems are expressions of same-sex desire, but what they reveal is that the rigid sexual categories we take for granted are both extraordinarily recent and quite contingent. The Great War – and its attendant social turmoil – set in train a redefinition of sexual roles, with heterosexuality buttressed by the new scientific discourses of psychology and related disciplines. But that was later. Nothing could be more misleading than the retrospective imposition of contemporary heteronormativity upon an era in which modern sexual identities were still in flux. Murray’s reference to ‘that name Lesbia as a one-word explanation of her muse’ illustrates how an anachronistic and simplistic understanding of her sexuality can overshadow the complexity of Harford’s extraordinary life.


In their introduction to Harford’s lost novel The Invaluable Mystery (1987), Richard Nile and Robert Darby point out how ‘in 1935 Nettie Palmer lamented that educated, humane people would not believe that poet R. H. Long had been imprisoned repeatedly in 1918-9 for carrying the Red Flag.’ Which, of course, is even more of a problem today, with the Great War so thoroughly aestheticised that few Australians have the faintest notion of what the conflict actually involved. In particular, the wave of political repression that swept the country has been entirely scrubbed from memory. Thus Murray entitles his preface ‘Our poem of World War One’, a formulation that obscures the fairly obvious point that Harford did not simply write of the war but also against it. Her work concentrated as much on victims of state persecution in Australia as those suffering in France’s trenches. Her novel, for instance, is set in the context of the anti-German hysteria of the war years, inspired, no doubt, by her own experience leading the campaign on behalf of Walter von Dechend, sacked from Melbourne University, and later interned, because of his nationality.

In her exchange with Serle, Harford explained her reason for not permitting him to include one of her poems: ‘Your anthology will be read in many places for many years. I would not care to be recalled to the memory of distant friends by the poem you have chosen.’  That concern now seems prophetic. Her notebooks contain sparse, intimate poems, most of which were not (as far as we know) intended for the public. She often wrote about – and occasionally to – her friends and associates, referencing both public events and personal triumphs and sorrows. Like other private documents, the poems demand to be read in context – a context that, in Harfords’ case, is not always obvious, both because the biographical record remains sketchy and, perhaps more importantly, because our historical moment is so different.

All of that makes the editorial choices in the new edition rather unfortunate. In places, Dennis recognises the necessity for glossing the cryptic references in these private poems to Harford’s friends and surrounds. The sparse footnotes – just five in all – identify the ‘Bob’ of ‘At Woolongong’ (sic) as Bob Besant, an imprisoned IWW leader, and provide useful background about Hilda Esson (‘Ruffs for Hilda Esson’). But so much more could have been done. Take the poem ‘All through the day at my machine’:

All through the day at my machine
There still keeps going
A strange little tune through heart and head
As I sit sewing
‘There is a child in Hungary,
A child I love in Hungary’

The words come flowing.

In isolation, the lines seem almost incomprehensible. Who is this child and why does the poet sing about him in a factory? The poem becomes far richer when we recognise the ‘child in Hungary’ as Baracchi’s illegitimate son, the result of a casual fling on a trip abroad. On the one hand, Harford’s embrace of the child might be seen as an enthusiasm for the conventional family from which she was excluded (her heart condition prevented children of her own); on the other, her acceptance of such overt proof of her lover’s past promiscuities echoes the libertarianism she voices in poems like ‘You’re not my slave, I wish you not to be’.

In Harford’s original manuscript, many of the poems are dated, a format that Modjeska wisely retains. Dennis arranges his collection chronologically, but then omits specific dates, something that makes the poetry’s relationship with the tumultuous times in which it was written far harder to discern. The poem ‘They are so glad of a young companion’, for instance, explains

We’ll walk in darkness, obscure, despised,
We’ll mourn each other at prison gates

The lines might seem histrionic – except that the appended date is 18 July 1917, the day on which Prime Minister Hughes passed legislation making membership of the Industrial Workers of the World a crime punishable by six months gaol, something that would without doubt have killed Harford. Her ‘dawnstruck boys’ – an echo of Bernard O’Dowd’s influential Dawnward? (1903) – are the IWW members who are, even as she writes, in the process of being rounded up.

Harford, writes Dennis,

was bound inextricably to the period in which she lived: war in Europe, changing attitudes to religion, the suffrage movement, and widespread social upheaval all helped make her one of the first truly modern, urban figures in Australian poetry.

That is true, and it is a shame this collection does not do more to situate the work in the intellectual milieu from which it arose, a milieu that has been systematically erased as the history of Australia during the First World War becomes more and more imaginary.

In 1923, Harford wrote:

How funny it would be if dreamy I
Should leave one book behind me when I die
And that a book of Law – this silly thing
Just written for the money it will bring.

That was precisely what happened. Her pamphlet, The law relating to hire purchase in Australia and New Zealand, was the only publication credited to her name when she succumbed to tuberculosis linked to her heart condition in 1927. It is certainly to be welcomed that, in the centenary year of the war she so staunchly opposed, we have a new book from Harford. Here’s hoping her remarkable writing reaches a wide audience.