Little Ships and Short Lives: Nickolas Falkner Reviews ‘Collected Poems Lesbia Harford’

Collected Poems: Lesbia Harford. Edited and Introduced by Oliver Dennis, UWAP 2014.

HARFORDI didn’t know what to expect when I opened Collected Poems Lesbia Harford, edited by Oliver Dennis. I had been previously unaware of her work so having the opportunity to read a collection of around two hundred poems, roughly half of all that she wrote, was a delight. Many of these have not been previously published and, on reading this volume, my only question was “Why not?” Overall, this is a very fine collection of work: lyrical, honest, a voice that captures a very strong minded person. There is a sense of mortality over all of the longer pieces but she was ill for most of her life, a congenital heart defect led to illness for most of her life, which ultimately ended far too soon at the age of 36 in 1927.

If I am being honest, and I suspect that she would expect no less, some of the shorter, smaller works have a sing-song cadence that undermines the beauty of the scenes that she evokes. However, this is more than compensated for by the poems where she explores grand themes with a bold, powerful approach that is deeply moving. And she does not require many words to stir you or break your heart. ‘Ours was a friendship in secret, my dear’ captures the horrific death toll of World War I and the tragedy of a secret love in eight lines and it is a brutal reminder of those times. But contrast this with one of her earlier poems ‘This year I have seen autumn with new eyes’, where her strength of evocation takes us to fallen leaves and cooling land but walks us hand-in-hand through an almost medieval reverie, a celebration of the harvest season in calligraphy and illumination.

It takes a skilled poet to handle love, death and war with such sensitivity and commitment to empathy and Ms Harford was such a poet. Lesbia Harford’s love and desire for men and women shines through in her work and she notes herself that like all lovers, she wants “love to be”. When she is in love, her work soars on warm winds above the hills. When she has lost, she takes you under the ground and you lie, held by her words, in the cold ground as she mourns.

Her voice, her thoughts and the way that she lived were very much her own. In ‘Fatherless’, she reflects on this and in the final paragraph she says:

For since no male
Has ruled me or has fed,
I think my own thoughts
In my woman’s head.

In reading her work, we are exposed to what is in her head and it is dynamic, deeply felt and utterly her. Her work has been published before, most notably in The Poems of Lesbia Harford, edited by Nettie Palmer, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press 1941 and The Poems of Lesbia Harford, edited by Marjorie Pizer and Drusilla Modjeska, Angus and Robertson 1985, but the poet was in no great hurry for other people to see her work. Most was left in notebooks, not presented for anthologies and was almost lost. It’s a shame that we’ve had to wait so long to read more of her. I keep dipping in and finding more and more but I keep returning to the opening lines of one of her earliest poems:

The little ships are dearer than the great ships
For they sail in strange places.

A little ship with a short life but she sailed to so many places. An excellent collection.

– Nickolas Falkner


Nickolas Falkner lives in South Australia and works in education. In his spare time, he writes and does print-making, often in combination.

Collected Poems: Lesbia Harford is available from


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