Owen Sheers explores six works of poetry set in the British landscape. He looks at Sylvia Plath's Wuthering Heights, inspired by her time in the Yorkshire moors.
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This series is all about the relationships poets have forged
with different aspects of the British landscape.
Moorland, this bare, wild upland country has often provided writers with the perfect setting
to evoke sensations of drama, menace and alienation.
And it isn't hard to see why.
Standing here in the middle of this bleakly imposing Yorkshire moorland,
you can't help but feel insignificant, almost consumed by the landscape.
This landscape has featured in the work of many writers,
but the poet who I think captures a unique vision of these Moors wasn't even British.
In fact, she only came to Yorkshire a few times.
She was the young American poet Sylvia Plath.
Sylvia Plath wrote some of the most striking, original and widely-read modern poetry.
Unfortunately, the mythology surrounding her personal life,
her marriage to the celebrated poet Ted Hughes, her mental health problems, and her tragic suicide has
tended to sometimes overshadow the richness and variety of her writing.
Sylvia Plath is most famous for the poems of intense personal drama
written in the last months of her life.
Few people would think of her as being a landscape poet,
and yet throughout her prolific career, Plath wrote a number of vivid poems of place.
One of the best of these is a strange and immensely powerful piece called Wuthering Heights.
It's set on the Yorkshire Moors, and after reading it,
I wanted to make the hike up to the moor top ruin that not only inspired
Emily Bronte's classic novel, but also this brilliant and chilling poem of Sylvia Plath's.
"There is no life higher than the grass tops or the hearts of sheep
"and the wind pours by like destiny, bending everything in one direction.
"I can feel it trying to funnel my heat away.
"If I pay the roots of the heather too close attention, they will invite me to whiten my bones among them."
It's disturbing, visceral writing,
a poem in which the poet and the landscape she is describing seem to be merging into one,
as if Plath is evoking the moorland world purely to reflect her own state of mind.
Sylvia Plath wrote a sequence of seven poems about the Yorkshire Moors between 1956 and '61.
Before heading up to Wuthering Heights,
I wanted to look at a couple of these earlier Moors poems,
both written what she was in her early twenties -
Hardcastle Crags and The Great Carbuncle.
Both of these poems feed powerfully into the five concise verses of Wuthering Heights,
written several years later when Plath was 28.
The young British poet Clare Pollard is an admirer of Plath's work.
When most people think of Sylvia Plath's poetry,
I think they're really thinking about her later poems,
those intensely personal works, and maybe not her landscape work. Do you think that's right?
Yeah, I think people mainly think of
the domestic landscapes, the beekeeping,
we think of her in a flat with the baby,
and also these very intensely private mythic worlds, the world in her head.
We don't think of her as a nature poet at all, I don't think, and yet if you look at
her collected poems, you see she does engage with the outer world,
she is intensely interested in the outside world and in writing landscape poetry.
But where did Plath's fascination with the Yorkshire Moors stem from, and what was she doing in England?
Sylvia Plath was born in Boston in 1932 into a family of academics,
and she had written poetry intensively throughout her childhood and adolescence.
She was a straight-A student, but being so driven took its toll
and in her late teens she suffered a breakdown.
Yet, despite this, she went on to graduate top of her class and September 1955, aged 22,
she arrived in Britain,
having won a prestigious Fulbright scholarship to the women's college of Newnham in Cambridge.
Her acceptance here meant the world for Sylvia Plath, it really was her dream come true.
She had huge expectations about what her time here at Newnham would bring for her.
She was also, clearly, fiercely ambitious.
When you read her journal, it is quite funny to see how keen she is to meet the right people.
She'd come here to conquer the literary landscape.
'I had always idolised England because I think,
'with an English major, especially, you think that here it all began,
'and you want to walk under Milton's mulberry tree at Cambridge and you remember all the Dickens that
'you read when you were little, and this is simply a literary influence.'
Sylvia Plath would have been delighted
to find that she has since become one of those Cambridge literary legends.
I went to talk to some of the undergraduates at Newnham College today about Sylvia and her poetry.
I think she's definitely an icon, she made herself into an icon with
her struggles and how she's perceived to be a sufferer.
People tend to have a romanticised view about some of her poetry,
that stereotype of 16-year-old girls in dark rooms reading The Bell Jar.
Sometimes fans of Sylvia Plath's work
get something of a name for themselves for being quite fanatical.
Is there any kind of embarrassment being at Newnham, saying you're a fan of Sylvia Plath's work?
People imagine Sylvia Plath is equal to teen angst,
but I think she has that raw emotion that teenagers,
when they are going through a certain stage, respond to.
As Sylvia was writing the journals, some of those early poems,
she was only a couple of years older than you lot, she was 23 years old,
and yet she's so focused, heaping all of these expectations upon herself.
Is that kind of drive unusual?
I think everyone at Cambridge is terrifying!
Everybody works hard to get here, everybody's ambitious and everyone has aims to be the best they can.
In that way, I don't think she's unusual from any of us here.
I think the difference with Sylvia is that she had the guts to admit that she wanted to go somewhere
and that she wanted to make something of it.
When I read her journal, it's just full of bits where she says to herself, "Shape up,
"this term, this year, you will do well, you will do this, you will do that,"
and I find myself saying, "Yes, yes, I will!"
And then I think, am I taking advice from Sylvia Plath?
And then I think, maybe I do want to be a brilliant poet like her, who wouldn't?
But maybe that's also quite terrifying,
that there is that part of Sylvia Plath that is so recognisable.
Do you think she was happy here?
It's where she fell in love with Ted Hughes, so I think there are
moments where she was possibly in the full flushes of romance. So maybe she was happiest here.
She was a very feminine, very warm person.
She had many minor loves in her life,
and each time would retreat in a disillusioned way because either
there was jealousy because of the time her writing consumed,
the dedication she was willing to give it,
and the emerging success she was receiving.
Only a few months after arriving in Cambridge, Sylvia met Ted Hughes
at a party celebrating the launch of a student poetry magazine.
'I'd read some of Ted's poems in this magazine,
'I was impressed and wanted to meet him.
'I went to this little celebration, and that's where we met.
'We kept writing poems to each other, then it grew out of that, I guess,
'a feeling that we both were writing so much and having such a fun time,
'we decided we should keep on.'
'The poems haven't really survived, the marriage overtook the poems.'
Sylvia and Ted were married in a secret wedding just four months after they met.
Following the honeymoon in September 1956,
Ted took her home to his parents' house in Heptonstall,
a village perched on the moor tops above the Calder Valley.
Until they arrived, Ted's parents didn't even know that their youngest son had a wife.
Sylvia arrived eager to make a good impression on her new in-laws,
but also to immerse herself in everything this foreign landscape offered her as a writer.
It was a very exciting period in her life.
At the same time, you could understand how it could have all got a bit much for her.
She was a young wife, staying here with her husband's family for the first time.
She was in a very different culture, and on top of it all,
this good old Yorkshire weather must have been a stark contrast to
the bright skies that she was used to back home in America.
However, at some level, her Yorkshire experiences were all grist to her poetry.
Here in the Pennines, she discovered a landscape that was at once alien
and yet at the same time inspirational.
This double-edged relationship with a forbidding, foreign environment
is the recurring subject through Plath's sequence of Moors poems.
And one that culminates in Wuthering Heights, where she finally seems to claim the landscape as her own.
She couldn't have written that great poem, Wuthering Heights,
without first writing those other Yorkshire poems that came before it, one of which began right here.
When you head out into the rough country beyond Heptonstall village,
with those terse and stoney sounds resonating around your head, you can't help but sense
that menace which Plath evokes lurking behind every rock and tree.
It's an eerie place to go walking.
This is Hardcastle Crags, the place, for me,
where the journey of Sylvia Plath and her relationship with the Yorkshire landscape takes off.
The poem that she wrote and named after this place
was her first really exciting poem about the Yorkshire Moors,
and it contains, I think, all of the raw materials of her later work about this landscape.
There is imagery of the grasses, that touch of the occult, the landscape being threatening,
something that very much challenges her, that she has to stand up to.
Although these images are good, and they do work, and help you to see this place,
they don't quite, yet, have that uniquely strange quality that we associate with her work.
That's because this is a young poet who is still negotiating her way through this environment,
still finding out how she wants to write about it.
Most of Plath's Yorkshire writing picks up on a sense of the supernatural.
Along with the often haunting atmosphere of the Moors themselves, Ted also introduced his new wife
to the local folklore and superstitions.
One of the most interesting things about being up here in Yorkshire is discovering
how strong the culture of story-telling still is,
and specifically the telling of ghost stories.
I went to a pub on the edge of Widdup Moor to hear some of these folk tales for myself.
She hung herself in the corridor down there, and that's her chair over by the bar.
Anybody comes in now and she doesn't like them,
the front door bangs to.
And he sat down in the chair, and as he did the door banged and the wind
whistled round and opened these doors as well, and they banged.
So he had the double doors.
He never sat in the chair again.
She was different to everybody else because she had an inheritance,
she wasn't like the other women, she didn't want to get married.
But there are lots of stories about how she sold her soul to the devil
and used to fly across from the Eagle-shaped cliff down over there and fly across to Pendle Hill
and mix with the other witches, but eventually she was caught when her hand was chopped off,
and the boy who was looking out for the cats whacked off a paw, but then it turned back into a hand,
and when he took it back to the house where Lady Cybil lived with her husband,
the blood was pumping from her wrist and she had to admit that she was a witch.
It was these kind of stories that Sylvia Plath would have heard.
I'm sure that it's the quality of those stories that has fed into
the poems that she wrote about this place, and that has lent them that slightly haunting tone.
It's an entirely appropriate tone because it does capture an essence of what it feels like to be here.
The Moors are quite an eerie place.
They can feel very other-worldly.
The second of Sylvia's poems that I wanted to explore before making my way to Wuthering Heights
was written after a trip to Yorkshire in June 1957.
This poem draws deeply on the supernatural dimension of the Moors and is called The Great Carbuncle.
What I find really interesting is that as Sylvia Plath's relationship with these Moors develops,
she increasingly brings more of herself into the poems she writes about them.
In The Great Carbuncle she does this by fusing her experience here
with a short story from her own literary heritage.
A story by the American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne.
In the story, a group of explorers travel out into the wilderness
in search of a gem of great brightness, the Great Carbuncle.
Which you'd imagine to be pretty handy should the mist suddenly
come down and you can't see a thing in any direction whatsoever.
There's a kind of strangeness that makes the landscape almost surreal.
I think you certainly get that in poems like The Great Carbuncle,
which has an extraordinary tour de force,
both Plath exploring the landscape but exploring the atmosphere and the light.
It's quite beautiful but quite terrifying at the same time.
She's still early on in her writing life, still a young poet.
I was just wondering what you thought these early poems
tell us about the poet that she would be later on.
Already technically assured.
You feel, as a reader, you are in the hands of a completely safe poet.
Powers of observation are fantastic.
Jo Shapcot is one of Britain's leading poets.
And after moving to remote hill country in the Welsh borders,
she was inspired to write a sequence of short, two-verse poems.
Like Plath, I was an urban stranger to the hills.
I also, like her, responded to the light.
"This slope has wings, as do our bats and the dragonflies and every bird
"flaunting as if resting on updrafts could make a creature invisible.
"Look, the light doesn't lie heavy on us at all.
"We can move our legs and arms through the honey
"and even the grass wears its worms with grace."
The British writer who fired Plath's imagination from a young age,
and with whom she shared the same Gothic sensibilities,
was Emily Bronte, author of that famous moorland novel of romantic passion, Wuthering Heights.
Newly married and full of own literary ambitions, it must have been thrilling for Sylvia
to come to Bronte country, and with her very own Heathcliff in tow.
It's no surprise that when Sylvia Plath got here
she came to have a look at the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth.
This was the home of those famous literary Bronte sisters who must have cast such a shadow of
influence and ambition over the young Sylvia Plath while she was here.
The Brontes were a truly impressive family.
I can imagine the 23-year-old Sylvia wandering through these rooms
and drawing comparisons with the illustrious sisters.
Like Sylvia, they'd started writing from an early age
and Charlotte and Emily went on
to achieve Sylvia's dream of publishing iconic novels before they were 30.
Sylvia's time in Yorkshire didn't only inspire poetry but articles and short stories as well.
And her literary career received a huge boost
when the prestigious New Yorker magazine accepted Hardcastle Crags for publication.
The 350 fee for the poem was enough to pay the rent on her and Ted's apartment
when they moved to Boston for the summer of 1958.
Sylvia's travels with Ted around America gave her a whole new range of landscapes to write about.
After they returned to England, Hardcastle Crags appeared in
her first collection of published poems, The Colossus.
By August 1961, Sylvia and Ted had a young daughter and were expecting a second child
when they decided to move from London to a village near Dartmoor in Devon.
Tragically, it was here, a year later, that their marriage fell apart.
However, shortly after the move, being near moorland again, Sylvia wrote a poem that was based on
her memories of this extraordinary hike from Haworth up to the windswept ruin of the Top Withins,
the supposed location of Heathcliffe's manor in the Bronte novel.
It was this forlorn place that inspired it Sylvia's most original evocation of the Moors.
Her own Wuthering Heights.
What a fantastic walk.
It's an incredibly thrilling landscape anyway
but walking up here with the lines of Plath's poem in my head, it was even more charged with energy.
Everywhere I looked, I kept seeing part of the poems, the grass distractedly beating its head,
the black stones of the walls, and then feeling this wind pouring by like destiny, how she says.
But, of course, this is why Plath came here, for this building.
So I'm going to have a look inside.
Although this ruin has no specific association with Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights,
it's exposed position right on the top of the Moors
is thought to have inspired the setting of Heathcliff's fictional manor.
You can only am imagine how excited she would have been to get here.
One of the main reasons she was so keen to come to Britain was because of its literary history.
And here she was literally immersed in it.
But where you sense in her earlier writing
that this weight of literary history might have been intimidating,
now she has the confidence to take the title Wuthering Heights and tell her own story.
As well as a seriousness and a passion, she has always been
wonderful at rooting into her subconscious for exactly the right image to express an emotion.
But also a kind of wit,
a great humour that really expresses itself wonderfully in Wuthering Heights in the sheep.
Although the sheep are sinister, they're also a bit silly and old womanish.
She characterises that beautifully.
It's deft, wonderfully deft.
For me, one of the most successful things about Wuthering Heights is the way that Sylvia Plath
captures this environment, by using some incredibly startlingly surprising imagery.
For example, in Hardcastle Crags, although her line,
"the incessant seethe of grasses riding in the fall of the moon"
works, and is a really vivid description, in Wuthering Heights,
she takes us to a whole new level when she writes "the grass is beating its head distractedly.
"It is too delicate for a life in such company.
"Darkness terrifies it."
We know that although she has got exactly the right image for the grasses up there,
that she is also talking about herself.
So the grasses and her state of mind have become one.
So it is a fantastic landscape poem and, for me,
one of her best because although her psychology is very present in it, it's still a landscape poem which
brings this environment to vital life in a really amazing way.
Wuthering Heights must have been a poem that Sylvia Plath rated highly, as she made it the opening
to Crossing The Water, the second collection she had planned for publication.
Tragically, Sylvia didn't live to see this or her third and most famous collection, Ariel, published.
However, almost 20 years after her death, her collected poems won the Pulitzer Prize,
and today she is recognised as one of modern poetry's most important voices and a pioneering figure.
There's absolutely no denying that Sylvia Plath has had a huge impact on women poets.
Many have either felt they've have to define themselves against her in a completely different way...
Myself, certainly, she was the first poet I really read seriously, and she had a huge impact on me.
It was in conversation with this landscape that the young Sylvia Plath developed her poetic voice.
In return, she has made these Yorkshire Moors live on the page
in a wholly new way, through the poems they inspired her to write.
In all Sylvia Plath's moor poems, the landscape is threatening,
apparently intent on snuffing the quick of her small heat out.
And on the whole it would seem that it's successful,
because of the end of those poems, she does retreat from the moorland and returns to the lowland lights.
But Wuthering Heights is different.
And at the end she doesn't retreat from the Moors but chooses instead to stay put up on the high ground.
For me, this gives the close of the poem a real sense of victory, as if
by imprinting the landscape with her unique vision and imagination,
she powerfully claims it as her own.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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Poet and author Owen Sheers presents a series in which he explores six great works of poetry set in the British landscape. Each poem explores a sense of place and identity across Britain and opens the doors to captivating stories about the places and the lives of the poets themselves.
Sylvia Plath is one of the most popular and influential poets of recent history but her poetry is often overshadowed by her life - the story of her marriage to Ted Hughes, her mental health problems and her tragic suicide at the age of 30. A rich and important area of her work that is often overlooked is the wealth of landscape poetry which she wrote throughout her life, some of the best of which was written about the Yorkshire moors.
Sheers explores this rich seam, which culminated in a poem called Wuthering Heights. It takes its title from Emily Bronte but the content and style is entirely Plath's own remarkable vision of the forbidding Pennine landscape.
Sheers visits the dramatic country around Heptonstall where the newly-married Plath came to meet her in-laws, a world of gothic architecture and fog-soaked landscapes, where the locals have a passion for ghost stories that connect directly with the tales that were told in the kitchen of the Bronte parsonage. His journey eventually leads out onto the high moors and the spectacular ruin known as Top Withens. Here amongst the wind and sheep 'where the grass is beating its head distractedly', Plath found the material for some of her most impressive writing.