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Marguerite Helen Power (1870–1957)

by Margaret Scott

This article was published:

Marguerite Helen Power (1870-1957), by Joseph Eccles, 1920s

Marguerite Helen Power (1870-1957), by Joseph Eccles, 1920s

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001125883439

Marguerite Helen Power (1870-1957), poet, was born on 6 January 1870 at Campbell Town, Tasmania, daughter of Thomas Henry Power, police clerk, and his wife Anstie Munro, née Hull, and granddaughter of Robert Power and of George Hull. Although she received little formal education Helen learned to read early and, having the run of her father's library, gained a good knowledge of English and European literature. In her teens she became sufficiently fluent in French and Italian to begin translating the work of poets ranging from Dante to Verlaine. Much of her own verse is modelled upon French originals and, although she went on to write at times with individual passion, the influence of French romanticism is often discernible in the musical, melancholy cadences of her nature poetry and her meditations upon love and death.

In 1902 Miss Power moved to Hobart where she ran a guest-house with her sister before turning to teaching. For over thirty years she conducted evening classes on contemporary literature and so kept abreast of literary movements in the 1920s and 1930s. Her own poetry was at first little influenced by modern trends but in her last years she showed some readiness to abandon the traditional forms employed in her earlier work.

Until the early 1930s she wrote steadily, contributing verse and prose to the Bulletin and other periodicals. Several poems won Bulletin awards, while others appeared in anthologies, such as Louis Lavater's The Sonnet in Australasia (Melbourne, 1926), and in a short collection, Poems (Hobart, 1934). At this point, however, editors began to complain that her work was not sufficiently Australian in tone. Feeling that she had lost her audience, she ceased to write.

In her eighties Helen Power joined a poetry-reading group formed by the expatriate English poet Clive Sansom, who encouraged her to begin writing again. During her final years in a Hobart rest-home she produced poems, including 'My Heart has an irregular Beat', which are remarkable for their vitality and wit.

After Helen Power's death at South Hobart on 27 November 1957, Sansom edited a selection of her work, A Lute with Three Strings (London, 1964). This book gives a fair idea of the poet's technical range, but does her less than justice. It contains no translations and barely a third of the original verse; moreover it omits all but one of an important series of poems written during World War I. These deal with what seems to be a clandestine love affair ending with the lover's death in action. Each poem, moving in itself, becomes more powerful when read in context. The whole sequence constitutes an achievement even more significant than the work of Helen Power's old age. Judith Wright's comment on A Lute is even more apposite when applied to Miss Power's poetry as a whole: 'her book ought to remind us … that poetry subsists less in technique and fashion than in the capacity to respond to life and turn it into art—a fact which, in Australia and elsewhere, has too seldom had its due'.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Sansom (ed), A Lute with Three Strings (Lond, 1964)
  • M. Giordano and D. Norman, Tasmanian Literary Landmarks (Hob, 1984)
  • Australian Book Review, 4, no 5, Mar 1965, p 84
  • H. Power, unpublished poems (State Library of Tasmania).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Margaret Scott, 'Power, Marguerite Helen (1870–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Marguerite Helen Power (1870-1957), by Joseph Eccles, 1920s

Marguerite Helen Power (1870-1957), by Joseph Eccles, 1920s

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001125883439