In conjunction with Plath’s birthday and a renewed immersion in Emily Brontë’s poems, here’s a revived post from a few years back…
There’s a blurry photo in the beat-up Bantam paperback Letters Home I bought in a secondhand bookstore in Iowa City that’s long captured my attention: Sylvia Plath poised on a stone pasture fence (or ruined wall?) in Yorkshire while visiting her poet-husband’s family.
Writing home to her mother, Plath describes a visit to Top Withens, an elevated moorland spot a few miles up a jagged pathway from the Brontë Parsonage—Emily’s favored walking spot with Keeper, her mastiff. Plath immortalized the visit to these ruins with a sketch of “the deserted black stone house” and eventually, a poem, packed with vivid impressions of place that still stand: the heathered hills, the sheep with their “hard, marbly baas.”
“Wuthering Heights” is a perfect October poem, one whose kinship with Brontë’s work is apparent in its meditative ferocity, close observation of the natural world, and bewitching syntactical turns.
Someday, I thought, as took the image in, I’ll make that pilgrimage, though I’d never have imagined the circumstances in which my visit took place. Three months pregnant, thinking about the legendary body of work crafted by these childless sisters, I looked down from the Parsonage toward the teashops that lined the steep, cobblestoned streets. It seemed foolish to follow ghosts, to browse museum cases and memorabilia (annotated volumes of the sisters’ masterpieces, tea towels, postcards, porcelain busts) and museum curiosities that been collected and offered up for the public gaze.
I’ve lost the photo I know posed for that day, taken while I paused on the Parsonage steps, too exhausted to make the trip to Top Withens, turning back from the path that energized the “scribbling sisters” and the youthful Sylvia Plath.
We look to photos for clues about a subject’s life; to their words for paths to and through our own lives. In that blurry photo I still find haunting, a young writer, stylishly dressed, looks out to clear and windless skies where “the sun, by a miracle, was out….”
It’s a moment snatched out of time—the subject still free of what the future holds. A young woman, committed to her art, an ocean away from her homeland, stands on her literary heroine’s ground. How far, she must have thought, I’ve come; how much farther to go.