One of Shetland’s finest poets is someone hardly anyone has heard of. Margaret Chalmers published just one short volume in 1813 which disappeared almost without trace until the Writing the North project realised what an interesting poet she is. By the time she came to publish her poems, her father had died, leaving the family in debt, and her only brother, William, had been killed at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Like many women poets, Chalmers published her volume by seeking advance subscriptions, so that we know that the book (although it didn’t sell well), was read by people from Shetland to South Carolina in the United States (a family friend there took ten copies). She sent her poems to Walter Scott, just after his visit to Shetland in 1814, but although he kept a copy it doesn’t seem that he wrote back to her. She addresses the famous poet, who had recently published ‘The Lord of the Isles’ elegantly and on equal terms: ‘At a period when your attention has been employd composing, and that of the Public expecting the Lord of the Isles, perhaps a Lady of the Isles ought not to be surprised at not having been honord with a line, yet I much wish to know if you received a Copy of my Book of Poems.’ (This letter is now in the National Library of Scotland).
Margaret Chalmers gives us a vision of Shetland that is both practical and detailed, and aesthetic and almost cinematographic. One the one hand she tells us a great deal about early nineteenth-century Lerwick—the trade with the Dutch fleet when the town buzzes with foreign sailors, or the social life of women when they get together. It’s from her poems that we find out that some Lerwick households would put a mirror in their drawing-room to reflect outside light indoors and make the most of fleeting sunlight on winter days. She sees Shetland as the centre of the commercial and manufacturing world—on a single Lerwick tea-table local jam, English pottery and Chinese porcelain meet. She never thinks of Shetland as a peripheral place.
As well as these practical and social scenes, Chalmers is really interested in light, space and reflection. When Lerwick honours the Jubilee of George III with illuminations, she writes about the ‘liquid mirror’ of the harbour in which the moon has to compete with the celebratory torches. Or when the harbour is full of boats, the reflection of their masts looks like ‘a wintry forest stript of leaves’. She’s also fascinated by the relationship of past and present as they meet in the memory and comes up with a wonderful metaphor for the mind as a bee-hive storing impressions ‘Deep in her numerous cells’. Chalmers’ best poem, ‘The Rose of the Rock’ will be the subject of one of our Writing the North dialogues. This great, and slightly mysterious poem is both a triumphant appropriation of the Shetland landscape for poetry, and a meditation on the experience of women.
You can read all Margaret Chalmers’ other published poems here: