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1 If you have loved a brave story/Tell it but rarely

Lesbia Harford, poet and feminist, died in 1927 at the age of thirty-six. After her death Nettie Palmer wrote that “her life had always hung on a fine thread, which perhaps made her words seem all the more poignant as if final”.note In so far as Lesbia Harford has been remembered at all, it is too often in the light of her early death. And as Walter Benjamin reminds us, such a death casts a retrospective authority across a life: “A man who died at thirty-five,” he writes, “will appear to remembrance at every point in his life as a man who died at the age of thirty-five.”note And so it has been with Lesbia Harford; it has cast a gloss on her life that is far from accurate. Rather than frail and poignant, her poetry is tough and clear minded. Living with a heart condition, she always knew that her life was likely to be short, but she did not trade on it. Rather than finality, Lesbia Harford's poetry insists on the constancy of change. Her voice, unmistakably her own, speaks as part of the multiplicity of voices speaking about social injustice, hope for revolution and the contradictory experiences of women. Far from being final, Lesbia Harford's poetry is partial both in the sense of being unfinished and of taking sides. She lived her life as if she would have seventy years or more to engage with it both politically and aesthetically. There were sides to be taken and she took them; but she did not have the time to finish many of her poems, a task she assigned to the future.

Lesbia Harford graduated in law from Melbourne University, but she never practised. Instead she worked in textile and clothing factories and joined the International Workers of the World, the radical labour movement better known as the Wobblies. As a hard working woman, her poetry could be seen more as a by-product of her life than a centre to it. Yet she wrote a lot and well. Her clear and courageous voice takes as its subject the factory and the varied experiences of women in work as well as love, and the painful contradictions between the need for love and the desire for independence. In form her poetry moves from an early emphasis on the lyric towards the ballad and the song; from the personal expression of individual experience towards a more proletarian mode, representing the collective life experience and viewpoint of a group. But conditions in Australia in the 1920s were not sympathetic to a protest poet like Lesbia Harford, who gave voice both to her own silence and to the silence of working women.

Despite the current rather reductive fascination with the lives of women writers, frequently in preference to their work, Lesbia


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Harford is barely known. She has been anthologised off and on since her death. But until now there has been only one slim volume of her work. She is known more or less dimly to some poets and critics, beyond that barely at all, although one of her poems, “Periodicity” is sung by the Adelaide band Redgum on their album Virgin Ground: “Women, I say,/ Are beautiful in change,/ Remote, immortal, like the moon they range.” (June 1917.) Her poems, many of them written as songs, raise critical questions about the relationship between popular and literary traditions of writing, the forms of protest poetry and the interconnections between histories of writing, class and feminism. These issues and the necessary re-readings that accompany them, have become central to contemporary critical debates. Rescuing Lesbia Harford and reconstructing something of her life and experience is not simply an act of feminist restoration. 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. “The great stone wall,” as Ken Worpole has recently written in another, though not dissimilar context, “which separates ‘Literature’ from ‘Writing’, then as now, cuts a swathe through any possibility of a common discourse of writing and creates many more cultural blockages and difficulties than it solves.”note Writers who have been obscured cannot simply be fitted into existing canons and histories. The fact of their obscurity challenges those histories.

I first became interested in Lesbia Harford when I was researching Nettie Palmer. Nettie Palmer edited the one slim volume of Lesbia Harford's poetry which has been published. The Poems of Lesbia Harford appeared in 1941 and was one of the first projects to be funded by the Commonwealth Literary Fund in its reconstructed and expanded form. Impressed by the poems, I was also surprised that the C.L.F. had published in wartime a volume of poems clearly by the hand of a revolutionary woman. As Flora Eldershaw and Nettie Palmer's husband Vance were on the advisory board I put it down to their influence despite the conservatism of the rest of the board. Then I came across a letter from Nettie Palmer to Guido Baracchi, a friend and one time lover of Lesbia Harford. Guido Baracchi, along with Nettie Palmer and Miss Clark — the last a friend of Lesbia's who worked in the library at Prince Henry hospital in Sydney — had been pushing to get the poems published since the C.L.F. was expanded in 1939. Nettie Palmer told Guido that the poems were given the grant only because Professor Osborne, S. Talbot Smith and George Mackaness, “three old gentlemen of the censor type … have no


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time to read, which sometimes prevents them from fulfilling their natural function, which is to obstruct. Professor Osborne now says … that if he had read Lesbia's Poems beforehand he would never have consented to their publication. Fortunately Flora is a strong enough character to take all such back-kicks quite calmly and the Board carries on.” Nettie Palmer complained that Professor Osborne was then obstructing a selection of Price Warung's stories. “You see,” she continued, “after the advisory board sits, its findings have always to run the gauntlet of the political committee — Curtin, Scullin, Menzies, and Osborne's veto (of Price Warung) seems to have caught their ear. It's a good thing he hadn't read Lesbia in advance, or he'd have passed on his horror to them.”note

Well might Nettie Palmer have worried about Menzies for he and Lesbia Harford read law together at Melbourne University during the turbulent years leading up to the first conscription debate. Lesbia had been publicly involved in the Victorian Socialist Party, the anti-conscription campaigns and, after 1916, in the I.W.W. But the poems slipped through, and just as well. Or they might have met the same fate as her novel. She tried to get it published in the early twenties. In 1939, after her death, her mother tried again; but nobody was interested. It was considered “too unsympathetic” and has now disappeared.

Intrigued by this glimpse of Lesbia Harford and at a dead end with my casual inquiries, I asked Marjorie Pizer what she knew of her. I knew Marjorie would know something. She is a poet herself, a one-time member of the C.P.A. who with her husband Muir Holburn had edited Freedom on the Wallaby, that excellent anthology of Australian poetry. Imagine my surprise when she told me that she had the original manuscript books from which Nettie Palmer had made her selection. In the three thick exercise books there were dozens of poems. Marjorie and Muir had been lent them many years before by Guido Baracchi and were given them after Nettie's death by Helen Palmer, Nettie's daughter. Having discovered Lesbia Harford while preparing the anthology, they had bought up the last copies of the Poems as they were remaindered. After Freedom on the Wallaby was published in 1953, Marjorie and Muir decided to edit a new collection of Lesbia Harford's poems as the 1941 edition had been a small and rather cautious selection. With two small children and a living to earn, progress was slow, and then in 1960 Muir died suddenly. It was not until 1964 that Marjorie had the heart to return to the project. During 1964 she collected biographical material from people who had known her. Lesbia Harford's fellow student R. G. Menzies, then Prime Minister, sent a formal note through a private secretary merely


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saying that her health seemed poor. Guido Baracchi was much more helpful with detailed reminiscences and the script of a long lecture he had given to the Fellowship of Australian Writers in November 1941. Another fruitful source was her brother, Esmond Keogh, who had briefly joined the I.W.W. in 1916 or 1917, at Lesbia's instigation, the family always said. He subsequently became a doctor and was prominent in cancer research.

In mid 1964 Marjorie Pizer sent a new selection of the poems to Angus & Robertson but it was rejected: “Of course there's no doubt about the quality of the best of them,” Douglas Stewart, the poetry editor, wrote to her, “but others would be ahead of her on the list for the Australian Poets series, and we don't feel the time is ripe for a general ‘rediscovery’ edition.”note He suggested she write about Lesbia for one of the literary magazines. Not surprisingly Marjorie was discouraged and the project lapsed to a back shelf. As she pointed out, writing about her was not as easy as it sounded: there was very little relevant cultural and political history written in the mid sixties. Ian Turner's study of the I.W.W., Sydney's Burning, was published in 1967 but David Walker's Dream and Disillusion, which sets the context of left liberalism in Melbourne during the First World War and just after, was not published until 1976. Most of Lesbia's papers had vanished and even with Esmond Keogh and Guido Baracchi's help, Marjorie had only fragments and clues to work from. Ian Turner, probably through his work on the I.W.W., was also interested in Lesbia Harford at about this time. He too considered a new edition of her poems, but nothing came of it: another busy person, he also died too young.

It was in the mid seventies that Marjorie and I discovered our mutual interest in Lesbia Harford and in response to my urging that she take up the project again, Marjorie asked me to work with her. We have made the selection together with surprisingly little disagreement. We have chosen about a third of the poems in the manuscript collection. A large proportion of the poems we have not included are fragments, earlier workings of poems we have selected, or poems which were started and abandoned and which do not come together as poetry. As Lesbia Harford did not expect to publish more than occasionally and as the time she was able to give to reworking the poetry was itself fragmentary, it has been difficult to know where to draw the line. Where Marjorie Pizer and I have differed has been on its drawing. As a poet Marjorie has been much more confident than I have in the assessment of which poems succeed and which fail as poetry; as a poet she is sensitive to the risk of publishing poems that might detract from the overall impact and worth of the collection. She herself would not want her first attempts and near-misses published. In this she has Lesbia Harford


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on her side. In June 1926, a year before she died, Lesbia wrote to Percival Serle who wanted to include a poem she did not like in his An Australian Anthology:

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. It was written one evening in the public library and is merely a versification of a fragment of Heracleitus. The thought, as you say, is eternal but the poem is marked for me by an absence of spontaneity because it was deliberately derivative.

I have only three or four poems in type and they are not favourites of mine. Beside 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 I am in no hurry to be read.note

As a historian and not a poet I am more brazen and argued for the inclusion of poems which, had she lived, she would undoubtedly have reworked. In a subsequent letter to Percival Serle after she had sent him some other poems she wrote: “Personally I hope old age will bring me leisure for more sustained effort. A poet should still be good at seventy or eighty.”note But she was dead within the year. Unlike Marjorie I am not confident of my assessment of a poem's worth; as a historian I am perhaps too aware of changes in taste and literary evaluation and in the historically and politically charged nature of the seemingly innocent activity of selection. While these differences may explain any lapses and inconsistencies in this selection, in the end we agreed to err on the side of too many rather than too few and let readers make their own evaluations. We also decided on a chronological arrangement of the poems. Thematic approaches proved impossibly misleading as any choice of theme ultimately became arbitrary. Too many of her poems bridge too many themes, and to force the poems into categories would be to deny their many-voiced strengths. We did not want to set up divisions, far less hierarchies, in her poetry. A chronological arrangement, it seemed to us, would best allow a sense of her development as a poet, her struggle with poetic form as well as a glimpse of a biographical portrait, the interaction of style, voice and ways of living, without limiting the possible readings of her poetry.

Marjorie Pizer has done most of the hard work of matching the various versions of the poems against each other, and matching the published with the unpublished versions. She has kept to the original version where there are differences between unpublished and posthumously published poems, and to the latest manuscript


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version where there is more than one. In preparing the poems for this edition, she has tried to make as few alterations to the original punctuation as possible. Sometimes Lesbia Harford forgot stops at the end of verses; occasionally she over-punctuated. She had a habit of using a comma and a dash together. Marjorie has added punctuation to make the meaning clear when necessary. She has removed unnecessary commas, and with the comma/dash combination has deleted either a dash or a comma, whichever seemed appropriate. Basically the punctuation is Lesbia Harford's.

I have taken over responsibility for the introduction, a task I could not have undertaken without the groundwork done by Marjorie in the early sixties, in particular her correspondence with Esmond Keogh and Guido Baracchi. We are indebted to their executors for permission to quote from this correspondence. Another debt I should acknowledge here is to Lesley Parsons for permission to use and quote from her B.A. thesis at Melbourne University, “The Quest for Lesbia Harford”. Lesley Parsons made her very interesting study in 1976 without knowing of Marjorie Pizer and the manuscript poems. Coming to this project with the scantiest of information, I have been generously helped in my subsequent researches. What I have made of the materials is, of course, my own responsibility. It should be said, however, that few traces remain of the life and even the work of this remarkable woman. My attempt to reconstruct something of her experience is very hesitant. My research has been dogged by silences and dead ends. Yet despite the necessarily unfinished nature of this task, I hope these poems will speak to contemporary interests and contribute to a socialist and feminist re-reading of Australian cultural history.

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