The wild, desolate Yorkshire Moors, a landscape of solitude and stillness where one can easily become overwhelmed with vastness, form a starting point for understanding the poems of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, both of whom wrote a poem named ‘Wuthering Heights’. The marriage of two world-famous poets is not a common occurrence in history. Both Hughes and Plath have garnered a certain respect and admiration otherwise not distributed to them as single geniuses because of this. Comparing their viewpoints of the same landscape is thus doubly fascinating.
How often is it that two poets – who are husband and wife - write a poem each about the same topic, with each other present at the same scene? Both poems are attempts to capture the essence of the landscape about which they were written, both with very different effect and intent. Hughes paints a vibrant picture of a wild but beautiful place with its centre ultimately on his wife, his companion; Plath creates a deeply depressing, almost disturbing tone, in which she stands largely in opposition to the world around her.
Hughes uses both Biblical and sensual imagery to evoke pleasure:
A mile beyond expectation, into
Emily’s private Eden. The moor
Lifted and opened its dark flower
For you too.
A ‘private Eden’ draws upon the Christian mythos, but is blended with the sexual ‘opened its dark flower’. But this private and personal closeness is contrasted with isolation and emptiness:
Withering into perspective. We got there
And it was all gaze. The open moor.
Bleak landscape is personified, suggesting an intimacy between it and either Emily, the long dead author, or Plath, his wife, who has accompanied him:
Came with its empty eyes to look at you.
And the clouds gazed sidelong, going elsewhere….
The stone…found you real
For Hughes, Plath is a kind of idol with whom the surrounding moor (and himself) is fixated. Having previously generated an empty mood Hughes contrasts it with one filled with desire.
Similarly in Plath’s version, the environment (told of by Brontë) is used to enhance the mood - but, unlike in Hughes’ version, the result is far less warm:
The horizons ring me like faggots.
Tilted and disparate, and always unstable.
For Plath, the places around them are ‘isolated fortresses of solitude’. Rather than following her husband’s lead, Plath speaks of the results of an unfortunate relationship. Her metaphors, similes and carefully worded segments develop a mood of loss and victimisation:
Before the distances they pin evaporate.
Weighting the pale sky with a soldier colour.
But they only dissolve and dissolve
Like a series of promises
For Hughes, the clouds ‘gazed sidelong, going elsewhere’; for Plath they are a metaphor of broken promises. Plath is vectoring towards death:
If I pay the roots of the heather
Too close attention, they will invite me
To whiten my bones among them.
For her, the landscape is less Biblical or sensual and more solid and overwhelming:
The sky leans on me, me, the one upright
Among all horizontals
Not that Hughes’ first description of the scene is without a certain reference to mortality:
Of door-bolted comfort finally amounted
To a forsaken quarry.
But for Hughes, Plath is present in the poem as much as the scenery; in fact, Hughes poem is more about her than it is about the place:
You breathed it all in
With jealous, emulous sniffings. Weren't you
Twice as ambitious as Emily? Odd
To watch you, such a brisk pendant
Of your globe-circling aspirations,
Among those burned-out, worn-out remains
Of failed efforts, failed hopes---
And the comparison with Emily, author of the novel, continues throughout:
In one of the two trees
Just where the snapshot shows you.
Doing as Emily never did. You
Had all the liberties, having life.
The future had invested in you---
As you might say of a jewel
So brilliantly faceted, refracting
Every tint, where Emily had stared
Like a dying prisoner.
And a poem unfurled from you
Like a loose frond of hair from your nape
To be clipped and kept in a book. What would stern
Dour Emily have made of your frisky glances
And your huge hope. Your huge
Mortgage of hope.
Plath’s moment of encounter with Brontë’s world is not as outwardly focused. She utilises her surroundings as metaphors for her own feelings:
The black slots of their pupils take me in.
It is like being mailed in to space.
In evaluating the relationship between Hughes and Plath one must be drawn to a comparison with that of Cathy and Heathcliff in Brontë’s novel: both were passionate and doomed. Hughes begins, as we have seen, with a description of the arrival at Brontë’s ‘Eden’, he then goes on to describe Plath in contrast to Brontë: ‘Weren’t you/Twice as ambitious as Emily?’. By the final stanza, Hughes is totally fixated on Plath; he views all around in relation to her.
Plath wrote of Hughes in her journal: ‘That big, dark, hunky boy, the only one there huge enough for me, who had been hunching around over women, and whose name I had asked the minute I came into the room, but no one told me, came over and was looking hard into my eyes and it was Ted Hughes.’ The sexuality of the reference ‘big, dark, hunky’ is clear. But Plath’s poem is insular and introverted: she begins with: ‘The horizons ring me like faggots’ which immediately conveys a notion of being trapped or surrounded. She then goes on to describe the sky ‘But they only dissolve and dissolve/Like a series of promises’, indicating promises made to her. She continues in this manner:
I come to wheel ruts, and water
Limpid as the solitudes
suggesting a transparency and emptiness within her. Plath concludes with:
The grass is beating its head distractedly.
It is too delicate
For a life in such company
which perhaps gives us the greatest insight.