Blog Our Sweet Old Etcetera
Behind the scenes at the Scottish Poetry Library
Wuthering Heights by Scott MacLeod Liddle, under a Creative Commons license
Wuthering Heights has proved irresistible to film and programme-makers for the better part of a century now. The first film adaptation was produced in 1920; the most recent has just come out on DVD. Famously, the eighteen-year-old Kate Bush wrote a song about the novel (she shares a birthday with Emily Bronte, the 18th of July). Poets have not responded in the same numbers. Anne Carson’s ‘The Glass Essay’ uses Bronte’s biography and her sole novel to paint a picture of loneliness. But perhaps poetry’s most interesting response to Wuthering Heights was produced by Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.
In 1961, Plath wrote a poem she called ‘Wuthering Heights’. At the time of composition, Plath was travelling to Yorkshire to meet her in-laws; she had married Ted Hughes in 1956. Plath would go on to write a series of poems inspired by her encounters with the moors, including ‘Hardcastle Crags’ and ‘The Great Carbuncle’. One route she was fond of walking brought her to Top Withens, a ruined building considered to be the model for the fictional farmhouse that gave Bronte’s novel its name. Plath’s poem though is less about the novel than the moorland that inspired both writers. There’s a sense of threat in ‘Wuthering Heights’: 'The horizons ring me like faggots’, 'If I pay the roots of the heather / Too close attention, they will invite me / To whiten my bones among them'. And yet there is also an eye for absurd detail that rather undercuts the doomy atmospherics, such as her description of sheep: 'They stand about in grandmotherly disguise, / All wig curls and yellow teeth.'
Eighteen years later, Ted Hughes’ Remains of Elmet paired his poetry with photographs of the Pennines by Fay Godwin. The collection has several poems with a Bronte-esque twist. ‘Haworth Parsonage’ is about ‘A house / Emptied and scarred black' while in ‘Top Withens’, Hughes sees “Stones blackening with dogged purpose.' Surely both Plath and Hughes would have agreed with Carson, that the moors were a place where 'Spring opens like a blade.'
In the same collection, Hughes’s ‘Emily Bronte’ depicts a woman loved, betrayed and finally killed by the untameable moor: 'His fierce, high tale in her ear was her secret; / But his kiss was fatal.' It would seem naïve to equate this portrait of a relationship with Hughes’s own marriage to Plath, yet in his last collection, Birthday Letters (1998), the poem ‘Wuthering Heights’ explicitly compares Plath to Bronte ('Weren’t you / Twice as ambitious as Emily?'). He appears to be describing a walk not unlike the one she takes in her poem of the same name, only he is less concerned with the landscape than he is the memory of Plath, who he compares to 'Dour Emily'. 'You / Had all the liberties, having life', Hughes writes, dramatically ironic for those who know how their story concluded. If it is simplistic to see Hughes and Plath as Heathcliff and Cathy, it remains striking to read what both of these dramatic poets made of Bronte’s blasted heath.