My Favorite Poet: Lesbia Harford

Lesbia Harford was briefly married to an artist who had an interest in modernism, so she may well have been familiar with some of the early forms of abstract art when she wrote this passage, which obliquely hints at the central theme of the novel. The Invaluable Mystery charts the steps by which a young woman acquires the determination to make her own way in, figuratively, a darkened world. Moreover, the repeated nocturnal descriptions it contains indicate that its author had some appreciation of the sublime. Uncertainty, we can sense, didn’t trouble her.

Yet she also had a very strong appreciation of the quotidian or mundane world. Her novel is once again instructive, for notwithstanding its repeated acknowledgments of the importance of mystery, it makes its strongest impact through its attention to the domestic and day-to-day round of activities. Harford had a very strong sense of dailiness and in both her verse and prose makes one intensely aware of the importance of regularity and order. She certainly wasn’t ironical when she declared, in a 1919 poem, that

So much in life remains unsung,
And so much more than love is sweet.
I’d like a song of kitchenmaids
With steady fingers and swift feet.

Her earliest poems appear to date from 1910, the year after she left school. Her father, a financial agent, had been bankrupted some years earlier, as a result of which the family had been reduced to genteel poverty. Harford’s mother established a boarding house, and the young poet took a lob in a clothing factory in order to pay her way through university. Her experience of factory life provided her with the subject-matter of many of her early poems. Here is the final stanza of the very first poem in Drusilla Modjeska and Marjorie Pizer’s edition of her’ poetry, The Poems of Lesbia Harford (Sirius Books, 1985):

Today the sun
Our workroom blest
And there was hard young wattle pinned
On our forewoman’s breast.

Harford had definite ideas about what she wanted to do in her poems. “My mission in the world”, she affirmed in a 1915 poem, “is to prolong/rapture by turning it/into a song”, and that she more than fulfilled this aim is borne out by the number of her poems which have the brevity and transparency of songs. Yet rapture — love’s rapture — was far from being the prime motive of these songs, for she wrote with equal frequency about the circumstances and the sheer tedium of her working life. There are good reasons for saying that the perky little “Machinist’s Song”, which she wrote in 1917, is her paradigmatic poem:

The foot of my machine
Sails up and down
Upon the blue of this fine lady’s gown.
Sail quickly, little boat,
With gifts for me,
Night and the goldy streets and liberty.

Some of the facts we know about Harford incline us to believe that she might have been the sort of person who, in an earlier age, would have adopted a religious vocation. In 1908 she wrote an essay about Mary Ward, the Elizabethan nun who founded the Loreto order (Harford was educated at the Loreto convent in Ballarat); and while she may have lost the religious certainties of her childhood in later life, it appears she never lost her admiration and respect for people who, for whatever reason, sacrifice themselves for the good of others.

We can see as much from the late “Love is not Love”, the title of which is taken from the second line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds”). As its last three stanzas make clear, Harford’s poem subtly revises the point that Shakespeare was making about constancy:

Now I know life holds
Harder tasks in store.
If my lover fail
I must love him more.

Should he prove unkind,
What am I, that he
Squander soul and strength
Smoothing life for me?

Weak or false or cruel
Love must still be strong.
All my life I’ll learn
How to love as long.

Harford wrote a number of interesting religious poems. Although she disclaimed any experience of God, she frequently wrote about the spirit and intuitively understood that it is possible to pray even when there are no grounds for believing that one’s prayers will be heard, let alone answered. This is evident from one of her last and best poems, which I quote in full:

I am no mystic. All the ways of God
Are dark to me.
I know not if he lived or if he died
In agony.

My every act has reference to man.
Some human need
Of this one, or of that, or of myself
Inspires the deed.

But when I hear the Angelus, I say
A Latin prayer
Hoping the dim incanted words may shine
Some way, somewhere.

Words and a will may work upon my mind
Till ethics turn
To that transcendent mystic love with which
The Seraphim burn.

It is appropriate that Kevin Hart, a poet and a philosopher with a particular interest in negative theology, should have included this poem in his 1994 anthology, The Oxford Book of Australian Religious Verse. Harford’s group of five poems is one of the highlights of Hart’s selection.

I think it takes a certain forcefulness of character to make such an unequivocal statement of one’s beliefs as “I am no mystic” and, moreover, perhaps yet more forcefulness to begin a poem with it. Where most other poets would hedge or, at the very least, indulge in a couple of preliminary verbal gestures before making so emphatic a statement, Harford typically comes straight to the point. Her poetry relies on the force of its statement to an inordinate degree.

In one sense, this is another way of saying that she is not a particularly visual poet. It is significant that similes (the recurrence of which often typify the work of a visual writer) are extremely rare in her work, so much so that I noted only one when I combed through her poetry in preparation for this essay. And that was a somewhat bizarre one in a 1924 poem which compared “woolly clouds” to “boarding-house old ladies”.

Her lack of interest in the surfaces of things is readily explained by one of her basic beliefs. As one would expect of someone who had such a forthright character, Harford believed that true beauty was internal and invariably hidden from sight. She repeatedly declares as much in her poetry, and perhaps most explicitly in the second and final stanza of an untitled poem of 1917:

There’s nothing here to please the seeing eyes
Four poles with crossway beams against the skies.
But beauty’s not for sight. True beauty sings
Of latent movement to the unsensed soul
In love with wings.

Yet there is one curious anomaly to this monastic disdain for appearances, for Harford was also acutely sensitive to colour and tone. There aren’t, in fact, all that many poems of hers which fail to mention a colour, and what could well be her longest is specifically about the subtleties of colour and the fine responsiveness it necessarily elicits in order to be appreciated properly:

What I’d thought gray
Was seen
To be the young beginning of live green
Under a spray
Of ghostly weed-stalks — lilacs, mauves and blues
At interplay —
A delicate tracery of shadow hues.

A moment’s reflection will enable us to see that an emphasis on internal beauty and a passionate love of colour are not necessarily contradictory. Her preoccupation with colour makes perfect sense if we remember that colours are capable of acting directly on the emotions. As Harford suggested in the final stanza of “The Melbourne Cup” of 1917, there is a sense in which they address themselves to something other than the eye, for they are capable of working directly on the nervous system:

Delicate, strong, long
Lines of colour flow,
And all the people
Tremble as they go.

Drusilla Modjeska tells us that Harford didn’t like Anna Wickham’s poetry and thought it slovenly and propagandistic. Yet the chances are she probably disliked most contemporary poetry, for her work was quite clearly fed by much older and deeper sources than those which influenced the great majority of her contemporaries. There are any number of things in her work which suggest she was devoted to Shakespeare — especially to the sonnets — and, quite possibly, to Donne, a poet then emerging from centuries of neglect.

Indeed, some of her poems actually read like a conscious imitation — a pastiche, even — of Elizabethan poetry. Such is the case with an untitled December 1917 poem, the diction, cadence and actual sense of which immediately kindle one’s memories of Shakespeare and Donne. Consider its seventh couplet:

Poor fools, who each would have the other give
What spirit must withhold if it would live.
Or its eleventh and penultimate couplet:
Oh, make no woman of me, you who can,
Or I will make a husband of a man.

Certain metrical features of her more mature poetry also suggest that she might have had an interest in Donne. In Some poems the basic iambic feet are so cunningly and persistently varied that the lines sound (as Donne’s so often do) like natural speech. Notice the location of many of the tonally accented words in this tercet from “The Two Swans;” of 1917:

And last night looking up I saw two swans
Fly overhead
With long black necks and their white wings outspread.

Harford employs the same persistent variations in the two densely-crammed quatrains which make up the splendid “Buddha in the Workroom”, another poem from 1917:

Sometimes the skirts I push through my machine
Spread circlewise, strong petalled lobe on lobe,
And look for the rapt moment of a dream
Like Buddha’s robe.

And I, caught up out of the workroom’s stir
Into the silence of a different scheme,
Dream, in a sun-dark, templed otherwhere
His alien dream.

The tonal stresses that spread, strong, rapt, caught, dream and dark normally carry by virtue of their grammatical form modify, and at some points completely alter, the basic iambic pattern. The competence these lines display completely belies the claim A.D. Hope made when he reviewed Net-tie Palmer’s edition of Harford’s poems in Southerly in 1942. For him to have said that her work was “limited in technique” and “artless in method” was, on balance, somewhat imperceptive of him.

Harford’s artistry is most apparent in her handling of the quatrain, that most common of stanza-forms. Not only do her quatrains invariably terminate in a full stop and thus insist on being regarded as definable and perspicuous things in themselves, they also have other things about them which encourage us to consider them individually and thus appreciate the poetry at a formal level. The variation in line-length that we find in both “I am no Mystic” and “Buddha in the Workroom” is, perhaps, the most conspicuous of these features.

I must admit I don’t know what to make of those quatrains in which a ten-syllable line alternates with a four-syllable line. The precise way in which these alternating lines inform and determine the impact of “I am no Mystic” is something that escapes me. But I have no such difficulty where Harford’s version of the Sapphic stanza (the quatrains used in “Buddha in the Workroom”, to be precise) is concerned, for it’s amply apparent that its short final line dramatically enhances or intensifies some of those emotions which she characteristically voiced in her poetry. Harford liked to begin her poems with a forceful statement; and she liked to conclude them with an even more forceful one. To take just one more example of this stanza, here is a very late poem from January 1927 in which she expresses her irritation with a merely scientific view of the world:

What were the good of stars if none looked on them
But mariners, astronomers and such!
The sun and moon and stars were made for lovers.
I know that much.

The other thing about her quatrains which deserves to be singled out is the manner in which they often integrate cadence and syntax in such a way that the meaning of the lines is given an almost physical embodiment. It seems to me that exactly this occurs in “Buddha in the Workroom”, where the strong and emphatic pause after dream in the second-last line deepens and prolongs all the resonance that word possesses. It comes alive, and we have the distinct impression of experiencing its meaning for the first time.

We could say that the word is simultaneously the syntactic and the rhythmic hinge or pivot of the quatrain in which it occurs. As we shall see, another word in exactly the same location forms the pivot in one of the quatrains of what is perhaps her best poem, “A Prayer to Saint Rosa”. In both poems these pivots endow her quatrains with a vigorous, muscular quality and once again put one in mind of the Elizabethans.

Yet there are occasions when Harford also reminds us of more recent Australian poets. The following untitled poem from August 1915:

Today they made a bonfire
Close to the cherry tree
And smoke like incense drifted
Through the white tracery.

I think the gardener really
Played a tremendous game,
Offering beauty homage
In soft blue smoke and flame.

inevitably puts one in mind of William Hart-Smith in both its form and the delicate and relaxed way in which it suggests or hints at meaning. If it does nothing else, tracery inevitably conjures up associations with ecclesiastical architecture and, by implication, endows her subject-matter with a sacral quality.

We are nudged even more firmly by “Flowers and Light”, the second stanza of which:

Freesias are flames wherein light more than heat is desired,
As candles on altars burn amethyst, golden and white.
Wall-flowers are sun streaked with shade. Periwinkles blue
noon
At the height.

is remarkably like some of Rhyll McMaster’s earlier poetry in its verbal texture. Much of McMaster’s second book, Washing the Money, was given over to the kind of oblique yet elated celebration of nature and its processes that we find in this poem.

Yet suggestive as these similarities are, it is idle to wonder what sort of poet Harford may have become if she had been granted a longer life. Any speculation on those lines is beside the point and is likely to make us ignore the kind of poet that she actually was.

Accordingly, I want to conclude by quoting “A Prayer to Saint Rosa”, which may well have been the last poem Harford wrote. It is also likely to be her best, for it brings together most of the qualities that are found individually in other poems and integrates so many of the governing themes of her work. The deep physical exhaustion she often voiced in her poetry is here, as is her belief in the efficacy of prayer.

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