13 May 2009

Review : "Wuthering Heights" from A POET'S GUIDE TO BRITAIN‏

The following review of the BBC Four's recent A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath, which looked at Plath's poem "Wuthering Heights" is by Sheila Hamilton (aka "panther" as a commenter on this blog). I would like to thank her for taking the time to write these thoughtful, insightful comments about the program.

REVIEW

This programme was the second in a series of six, all scheduled for showing on BBC4 on Monday evenings, and each presented by the young British poet and novelist Owen Sheers. The title of the whole series is A POET'S GUIDE TO BRITAIN and in it, Sheers has sought to examine not so much the lives of six landscape poets but rather, the lives of six poems, each of which explores a different British landscape. In this second programme, he looked at Sylvia Plath's poem "Wuthering Heights", written in 1961 and first published in book-form in CROSSING THE WATER (1971).

The life of a poem, then, rather than a heavy focus on the life of its writer. This in itself feels very refreshing. Early in the programme, Sheers gives us the basic biographical details, and we get to see some photographs of Plath: as a child, at various social events, on her wedding day. Kudos to Sheers for mentioning her mental health problems, briefly, perhaps twice in the course of the entire 30 minutes !

Then he cracks onto the programme's central subject: the poem "Wuthering Heights", inspired by Plath's visits up to Yorkshire to visit her in-laws and, specifically, by her walk up to Top Withens, the ruinous farmhouse up on the moors outside Haworth and popularly considered to be Emily Bronte's model for Wuthering Heights in her only novel. Plath went to Yorkshire first in 1956, shortly after her marriage to Ted Hughes, and wrote OTHER Yorkshire poems responding to that wild, sometimes energizing, sometimes bleak landscape. Sheers examines two of these poems, "Hardcastle Crags" (originally entitled "Nocturne") and "The Great Carbuncle" in some detail, showing us how their tone-powerful, strange, unsettling- and some of their images feed later into "Wuthering Heights."

I will say that at no point did this programme feel like a dry, academic exposition of a poem. Sheers is seen walking through the village of Heptonstall, where Hughes' s parents lived, walking on its dark cobbles, looking at its dark millstone grit cottages, wandering through its graveyard which, incidentally, inspired another Plath poem, "November Graveyard.") We see him slogging across damp and sometimes misty moorland as if in pursuit of the poem. Wild though this landscape is to most British people, he points out how much more alien it must have seemed to an American, especially one like Plath who was also contending with a dramatic and threatening INNER landscape.

Cut for a while, then, to Cambridge, completely different: civilization, one may say, in contrast to Yorkshire's wildness. There's a quote at this point from one of Plath's interviews in which she says "I had always idolized England. . ." She came here for the literary associations and, more mundanely, on a Fulbright scholarship, to study English at Newnham College. The Newnham undergraduates-all women, it's still an all-female college- whom Sheers meets all come over as realistic and un-neurotic about Plath. They know about the life, and the suicide, but see her primarily as a POET, gifted no doubt but also hardworking and very ambitious, rather like themselves. Sheers comes over in this interview and with others as a sympathetic listener with a refreshing absence of agenda. He doesn't want CONFIRMATION of views already arrived-at; he really does want to form his own view of Plath, and of her poem.

And so back to Yorkshire: more moorland, more rain, more fog. As the fog seeps into Sheers' bones, so we feel it seeping into ours. He visits Hardcastle Crags, a wooded valley that is close to Heptonstall, and then heaves over the moor to a pub at Widdop, a much more isolated community, and listens into the telling of some local ghost stories. Storytelling, and especially the telling of ghostly tales, is still very much part of the local culture. This ghostliness, he suggests, fed into "The Great Carbuncle" and then, finally, into "Wuthering Heights" itself. Thus, to the element of landscape very present in the poem, and to the element of menace (which is partly a reflection of Plath's inner struggle, her mindscape), is added a THIRD element: otherworldliness, the presence (covert) of other lives, the life of Emily Bronte, the lives of Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, passionate, in some ways tormented, and very much influenced by their physical surroundings: the wind, the rain, the dark stones.

After these necessary preambles-Cambridge, Heptonstall, Haworth-and comments from other poets, and the undergraduates at Newnham, and the listening-into of the ghost stories, we finally arrive with Sheers at Top Withens. By the way, I think it was a good decision on the programme-makers' part to film all this in the winter, as Sheers gets to touch the broken walls of Withens, and see the odd sheep, BY HIMSELF; in summer, he'd have been competing with at least a small crowd of hikers and Bronte enthusiasts with their cameras and guidebooks. (I don't want to criticize them-I too am a Bronte enthusiast !-but they do inevitably alter the experience.) The poem that has come up in bits and pieces throughout the programme, sometimes spoken, sometimes superimposed on the screen, comes up again. (Though never in its entirety. I'm not sure whether this is to tantalize the viewer into actually reading the poem-not a bad idea -or whether it's due to some copyright issue.) We hear Jo Shapcott again as she reflects on how the poem is dark but also witty, the sheep being sinister but also silly, like grandmothers in wigs. And Sheers concludes that it is in "Wuthering Heights" that Plath finally stops being intimidated by England's literary heritage and lays her very own claim to it. She refers to Bronte via the poem's title but the poem itself, the experience of the moors, is very much hers. "The grasses and her state of mind" become one.

So, to sum up. This was a poetry programme that honoured the poet without being hagiographic or gossipy. It did not offer soft-focus or cliched visuals, as some other poetry programmes tend to do. Sheers and the programme-makers focussed rigorously on the poem. The imput from other people was interesting and relevant except, it must be said, Aurelia Plath's remarks (made in the Seventies, I believe) about her daughter being "very feminine" and how her success provoked jealousy in various boyfriends. These two statements might well be true, but I don't see how they help us to understand "Wuthering Heights." For a few moments, I felt disorientated, as if I'd stumbled into a completely different programme !

The programme's achievements? I am now re-reading all of Plath's Yorkshire poems; she wrote half a dozen, "Wuthering Heights" being the last. It's got me thinking more about various ways a poet might handle landscape.

In the next programme in the series, Owen Sheers will be tackling "Hamnavoe" by the Orkney writer George Mackay Brown (1921-1996). Mackay Brown was, in contrast to Plath, very much an insider, almost part of the Orcadian landscape himself. What do he and Plath have in common, apart from being poets? Passion.

10 comments :

Sorlil said...

Excellent review. I'm really looking forward to the George Mackay Brown programme.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thanks for your comment. I'd like to point out that Sorlil also posted a review on her wonderful blog, Poetry in Progress: http://sorlily.blogspot.com/2009/05/poetry-on-bbc.html

panther said...

Thanks, Sorlil. By the way, I'll email you shortly about something else, that is not Plath connected.

May I also point interested people to pviktor.co.uk for ANOTHER review of the programme. Under his blog entry for May 12th, Paul addresses something I did not address, namely how male writers approach (or fail to approach) Plath. SP's writing has without a doubt had a large impact on many women, but surely the exploration of one's interior life should not (and is not) confined to us females ?

A male poet who has been very open about his Plath influence is the Irish poet Matthew Sweeney.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thanks Panther! For those who want it easy, P.Viktor's review can be found here: http://pviktor.co.uk/p_viktor_/2009/05/sylvia-plath-poets-guide-to-britain-bbc4.html

Anonymous said...

A very nice review, Sheila (May I call you Sheila? I must admit, when I first saw your 'aka' Panther, I assumed it was a male. I guess I was thinking it was a reference to Sylvia's 'Panther' poem)Anyway...nice job. I sure wish we could see these programs in the US. :^( --Jim

panther said...

Calling me Sheila is fine, Jim. Thank you. Ah, yes, sylvia's panther ! I personally tend to think of Panther as female for two reasons 1) it was the nickname of Rebecca West, the author and 2) I share my home with a superb tortoiseshell cat who is so dark and lithe we think of her as a small panther !

I hope these programmes will soon be available in the U.S. I wonder if Owen Sheers himself will know ? I understand that these days he spends a lot of his time in NYC.

Al said...

Thank you for the great review, panther. Though I haven't yet had the opportunity to see the programme (or find a way to do it without moving across the pond), it seems refreshing (to me at least) that Sheer's programme did not focus squarely on Plath's life in order to communicate the "biography" of the poem.

Laurie said...

Yes, excellent review! Thanks for taking the time and putting so much thought into it.
cheers,
Laurie

Al said...

For the technologically-inclined, I've found a way to see the programme outside of the UK using this guide. It does take some patience, but it is substantially cheaper than moving to Britain.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thank you all for the comments. Sylvia Plath Info will not remove the previous comment or link, but cannot endorse anyone outside of the UK clicking it.

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