The Literature of
Orkney and Shetland

Reading Margaret Chalmers

Reading Margaret Chalmers

Guest post by Fiona Piercy

If someone had told me a year ago, when I started a class on 18th century poetry, that I’d go on to write my undergraduate dissertation on the subject I wouldn’t have believed them. Filled with political satire and classical allusions studying poetry of the 18th century seemed a daunting task to undertake. However, nestled amongst the canonical greats, such as Pope and Burns, that dominated the class’ reading list was a poet I’d never heard of: Margaret Chalmers. Chalmers, I would go on to learn, was a largely obscure poet from Shetland who was as inconspicuous within that century as she is today, writing on the margins of Britain out of a sense of impoverished necessity. On a surface level her poems seem to lean towards a conventionally 18th century female voice, she writes mainly in a domestic setting from the perspective of a middle class woman. It is what Chalmers does with this setting and sense of conventionality that makes her such a fascinating poet to study and to read. Her poetry takes the banal, the mundane, the everyday and imbues it with a sense of self awareness and a deeply transgressive sense of subversion. A poem about a ladies’ walking tour across the islands (‘The Rose of the Rock’), for example, becomes a highly emotive and effective commentary upon female sexuality and desire.

My favourite poem of hers is ‘Lines On the Drawing Room of an Intimate Friend’. Here Chalmers speaks about taking tea in the home of two of her friends, a subject that could arguably become ‘twee’ in the wrong hands (and often does in much 18th century poetry by women). The poem contains an incredibly vast focal point, moving through topics such as sensibility, British Empire and industry all the while never leaving the confinement of the drawing room setting. In a particularly evocative line Chalmers speaks of the ‘circling hours’ which pass as she sits within the room, touching upon the melancholy of the moment and adding a dark tone to a poem initially inscribed with a sense of sociability.

Discovering Margaret Chalmers has also given me the ability to question the literary canon: how and why do things become deemed canonical? Do forgotten writers become less valuable through their exclusion? I, for one, am very glad that the poems of Margaret Chalmers have been found and are beginning to be given academic attention. She is a poet who should, and must, be read and whose words transcend the century in which they were written by still holding implicit power within a modern audience.

Fiona Piercy  is a final-year undergraduate student at the University of Edinburgh, writing her dissertation on women’s poetry of the Romantic period

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