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4 So much in life remains unsung/ and so much more than love is sweet

Although Lesbia Harford's writing can be seen within a broad tradition of radical Australian poetry which includes Lawson, Le Gay Brereton, Mary Gilmore, Furnley Maurice and E. J. Brady, her poetry is not entirely at ease in this company. Some of her poetry shares imagery of the feminine with Mary Gilmore's early work: Marri'd and Other Verses was published in 1910 and The Passionate Heart in 1918. Given her interest in feminism and Australian poetry, Lesbia Harford would almost certainly have read these volumes, and her admiration for Furnley Maurice is clear from her letters to him. But by the end of the war her poetry was moving towards popular and proletarian traditions of song and away from the more stylised forms that mark the work of Furnley Maurice and Mary Gilmore. Perhaps in some ways the poet closest to Lesbia Harford is Dick Long, another underrated and barely known but marvellous Australian poet. They share a vernacular poetry, a commitment to working class struggles and the representation of the working conditions and life experiences of the poor and powerless. But it is also very different, for most of all her poetry articulates the problems and the consciousness of the feminine. It is a poetry in which woman is active and the feminine voiced in its own terms. Lesbia Harford's poetry is a far cry from the bulk of verse written by Australian women in the 1910s and 1920s which filled the volumes of such magazines as The Spinner, and which relied on Victorian rhyme and metre, cosy sentiment and hedgerow descriptions. Viewed historically Lesbia Harford's poetry is astonishing.

Lesbia Harford's attitude to her poetry was deeply implicated with her politics and philosophy of life. As Guido Baracchi put it: “she wanted to ditch the bourgeois world altogether. Her way of doing it was to work in the clothing trades, join her union, become a member of the I.W.W.…. She completely ditched that old world that she had grown up in. Even in things like music there was a rejection of the old; she got quite hostile to classical music. There's one of her poems: ‘There's a band in the street,/ There's a band in the street,/ It will play you a tune for a penny.’ Well this was the only sort of music she'd have a bar of, the music that would reach the people.”note And so too with her poetry. It looks to popular traditions of song and lyric poetry rather than to contemporary intellectual or modernist poetry. She was certainly aware of the latter. According to Bernard Smith, Esmond Keogh and Pat Harford were among the first people in Melbourne talking about


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modernism in art.note Katie Lush and Nettie Palmer were other sources for discussion about modernist poetry. Despite Nettie Palmer's profound unease with the avant-garde, she made it one of her tasks to introduce Australian writers to contemporary European and American writers.

Perhaps Frederick Sinclaire's greatest influence on Lesbia Harford was not in religious philosophy but in language. One of his central tenets was that religion should speak the language of “ordinary people”, that it be easily accessible. This was the case with Lesbia Harford's poetry which combined the familiarity of rhyme and lyric traditions with the accessibility of vernacular language. But while many of her poems are about the workplace and the daily experience of women, she was never a polemicist in her poetry. She told Percival Serle in 1926 that she was not “a Bolshevist in verse”. She did not like Anna Wickham's polemically feminist poetry which she considered “spoilt as much by its slovenliness as by its propaganda aspect”. She preferred “the old forms”.note The radicalism of her verse did not rely on polemic but on the power of the female voice that does not apologise. The simplicity of her poetry is deceptive; its accessibility is constructed in carefully metred lines. It was not easy to meld the vernacular with traditional lyric forms: “Into old rhyme/ The new words come but shyly.” (1.9.17.) The attempt resulted in a move away from the lyric and a poetic tradition which celebrates self-expression towards poetic forms such as the ballad and popular song which express the viewpoint and life experience of a group. This shift came slowly and tentatively, and her poetry should be read as transitional, making rather than completing a move in this direction. Nor was the transition straightforward: on the one hand her impulse towards the vernacular and the representation of the working experience of women led her away from the lyric; on the other hand the connection between feminism and the expression of the personal maintained strong links to that tradition. Her own attitude was dialectical, embracing these contradictions. Nevertheless it was a shift, however difficult, from an emphasis on the individual imagination to a more proletarian and also feminist concept of a poetry which could be spoken or sung, addressed to a larger audience than a small specialised poetry reading public. Another influence in this, of course, were the I.W.W. songs and ballads which had a wide popular following in America.

But Lesbia Harford's poems and songs were never taken up by the I.W.W. in Australia as Joe Hill's were in America. They do not appear in the pages of Direct Action although there was poetry in most issues between 1914 and 1917. Most of it was, of course, by men, a lot reprinted from America. Most of the poetry was Victorian


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in form, often satirical and sometimes in ballad form. In contrast Lesbia Harford's poetry was modern, witty and uncompromisingly female. It was much too concerned with women's experience to become part of a male dominated urban working class culture as the proletarian ballads of the thirties were to do. Nor did it fit the tradition of the bush ballad with its rural and masculine orientation. Besides, she never had the confidence or the strength of voice that would have been necessary to establish herself as a singer/writer. The proletarian ballad is a tradition that needs singers. Right to the end she was shy about her poetry. She might speak from a soap box, but not sing. Guido describes her singing her poems for him on the Manly ferry. She sang for her friends and wrote her own music, but her singing was informal and when she died the music died with her; no record of it remains. In any case her move towards proletarian song was never a denial of lyric. Her feminism and her articulation of the invisible realities of women's lives resulted in songs that were different from the tough tradition of urban working class popular songs. Hers were not songs to be belted out on street corners. And so she did not make a comfortable fit with that tradition any more than she did with a more bourgeois tradition. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that her poetry foreshadows a form of protest singing and poetry that developed several decades later when shifts in education and class structure gave a more lyric style of protest song a popular following. But in the 1920s the conditions for this did not exist in Australia. When she was published it was as a lyric poet in small circulation poetry publications which never had a large, let alone a mass audience. Where she was taken up it was within the literary groups she had always shied away from. Like that of many other marginalised poets — black, female, working class — her work challenges literary historiography, the categorisation of forms, and the division of writing into literary and popular, major and minor.

Even as a lyric poet Lesbia Harford has been inadequately read; but then Australian criticism has never been comfortable with the metaphors of the feminine and the discourses of women's writing. Every lyric poet inherits the metaphors of lyric poetry, the language within which poetic meaning is constructed; it is an inheritance which can be highly problematic for women. The curve of female sexuality, for example, has been spoken in lyric poetry for several centuries through imagery from nature and the language of flowers. As Cora Kaplan points out “the analogy is not always hostile to women, nor is it sexist in obvious ways. Male poets also mourn the decline of their own youth and freshness — though they tend to see themselves not as flowers but as more phallic objects like trees, or to image their decline as part of the seasonal cycle — a


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grander process altogether. But if we consider how vulnerable, passive, fragile and silent flowers are, we see that the metaphor is always subliminally degrading.”note The problem for the woman poet is the negotiation of this inherited language in her attempt to image herself. Lesbia Harford is conscious and even ironic in her rejection of the rose as metaphor for her female self. Where she is less conscious and rather more interesting is in her use of lilac and the lily. Lilac is not a flower that is traditionally used for the female; the lily is. As a flower lilac is highly perfumed, signifying itself in large and obvious sprays, in no way modest or demure. Yet it is also a tree and is strong against storms: “A branch of lilac and a storm of hail/ On the same afternoon! Indeed I know/ Here in the south it always happens so,/ That lilac is companioned by the gale.” The poem speaks ambivalently of the poet's relationship to the lilac; she sees herself not as the lilac but in critical relationship to it. The storms of female experience keep her from any easy identification with the flower:

I took some hailstones from the window sill
And swallowed them in a communion feast.
Their transitory joy is mine at least,
The lilac's loveliness escapes me still.
Mine are the storms of spring, but not the sweets.
   (11.10.23)

For Australians, of course, the problem is accentuated by imagery that comes always from Europe; “Pink eucalyptus flowers/ (The flowers are out)/ Are fair as any rose/ For us to sing about.” (29.3.18.) The lily is a common European flower which in romantic poetry signifies the purity and passivity of the feminine. But of course there are also native Australian lilies. Lesbia Harford's first poem which uses the image of the lily is dated December 1913; it is a poem that becomes inert under the weight of that traditional imagery. The image cannot free itself of its history:

Ay, ay, ay, the lilies of the garden
With red threads binding them and stars about,
These shall be her symbols, for she is high and holy,
Holy in her maidenhood and very full of doubt.
   (December 1913)

Compare this to another poem, written five years later, in which the image is transcended and made both active and Australian, yet relies for its meaning on its unspoken defiance of that old stereotypic association:




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I went to see
A friend last night and on her mantelself
I saw some lilies,
Image of myself,
And most unlike your dream of purity.

They had been small green lilies, never white
For man's delight
In their most blissful hours.
But now the flowers
Had shrivelled and instead
Shone spikes of seeds,
Burned spikes of seeds,
Burned red
As love and death and fierce futurity.

There's this much of the lily left in me.
   (9.3.18)

The language her poetry uses to negotiate that contradictory set of relationships between independence, love and sexual passion also holds ghosts within its meanings. Her poetry breaks with earlier feminisms which resolved the conflict between love and independence in a denial of sexuality. Miles Franklin's early writings voice the tension of this resolution and the pain of her staunchly chaste independence. Lesbia Harford's attempt to know sexual passion and still take charge of her own destiny was no less painful and her poetry speaks the tension in balancing — or failing to balance — freedom of mind and spirit with freedom of the body and the heart. The sub-text of her poetry is exactly this negotiation, and the acceptance of struggle and change as a condition of life. The problem remains that of being active rather than passive, of speaking as a poet in a culture in which woman is spoken through the language of poetic metaphor. Her writing grapples with this in poems which are frank, vernacular and attempt to resist traditional meanings.

One resolution of the conflict between love and independence was to articulate it in poetry: to break the silence of women's isolated and painful experience. Increasingly this merged into her identification with broader based struggles of class and gender as another resolution, however partial, and as a way of broaching the essentially individualistic pain of private love and romantic poetry. The imagery of personal consciousness merges with and gives way to poetry which addresses the narrative of a more collective (female) experience. Her poems become strike songs and a later


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love lyric is addressed to revolution as a female lover: “She is not of the fireside,/ My lovely love” (12.2.18). If her poetry is contradictory it is not that it is illogical, but that it voices in its contradictions the essential realities of those who are poor, who struggle and who dare to hope in a society divided by class and by gender. By grappling with poetry as a form of protest as well as of expression, and by voicing the politics of sexuality and women's experience, Lesbia Harford's clear and honest poetry speaks to contradictions that are still central to Australian feminism and writing today.

   Drusilla Modjeska

   Sydney, 1984

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