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This poem is taken from PN Review 208, Volume 39 Number 2, November - December 2012.

A Selection of her Poems (by Oliver Dennis)
Poems Selected by Oliver Dennis
Lesbia Harford
One of the most interesting (and neglected) figures in Australian poetry, Lesbia Harford (1891-1927) is only now beginning to receive recognition. She wrote hundreds of lyric poems whose precise flavour is unlike anything that had been done in Australia previously.

Harford, it seems, didn't regard herself as a poet - only as someone who wrote poems - and published little during her lifetime. A small selection appeared not long after her death, but it took forty years before her work was more substantially represented in book form, with the publication in 1985 of The Poems of Lesbia Harford, edited by Marjorie Pizer and Drusilla Modjeska. Les Murray included a selection of her poems in his FyfieldBooks anthology Hell and After (2005).

Harford was born Lesbia Venner Keogh in Melbourne, into a middle-class family with distant aristocratic connections on her mother's side. She had a congenital heart condition which left her frail but determined. Her father deserted the family when she was nine or ten. Left to cope on her own with four children and little income, Harford's mother managed to send her daughters to convent school. Harford went on to study law at the University of Melbourne, becoming one of its first female graduates. She had a strong social conscience and for years was active in the radical socialist organisation the International Workers of the World. Despite her weak heart, she worked in clothing factories and as a domestic servant - her poems often comment on this work. Harford also wrote a novel, The Invaluable Mystery, which was lost and eventually published for the first time in 1987. In 1920, after several relationships with both sexes, she married Pat Harford, a painter. The marriage failed after a few years. Harford returned to Melbourne from Sydney, and took up teaching and clerical work. Her health began to fail, and she died on 5 July 1927 from the combined effects of pneumonia and a bacterial infection of the heart. She was thirty-six.

The following selection of Harford's poems includes work that has already appeared in print as well as a number of poems published here for the first time. In choosing this material, I have tried to represent Harford's interests as widely as possible, while also attempting to highlight particular subtleties of her poetic gift. For me, the beauty of Harford's lines derives from their combining plain statement with a disarmingly ambivalent lyricism. Her writing can be clumsy, limited in scope and at times sentimental and moralistic. At her best she has a strong claim to being considered among the finest lyricists Australia has produced - a poetic sister of sorts to John Shaw Neilson.

Little Ships

The little ships are dearer than the great ships
For they sail in strange places,
They lean nearer the green waters.
One may count by wavelets how the year slips
From their decks; and hear the Sea-King's daughters
Laughing at their play whene'er the boat dips.


I count the days until I see you, dear,
But the days only.
I dare not reckon up the nights and hours
I shall be lonely.

But when at last I meet you, dearest heart,
How can it cheer me?

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