Sylvia Plath, “Wuthering Heights”

You can find the text of “Wuthering Heights” at

I don’t think I’ve read this poem on the page since the late seventies, but reading it now makes me aware how much it’s been hovering in my mind since then, sometimes quietly in the background, sometimes distinctly visible and audible.

This is partly because it’s brilliantly written in ways we find in many of Plath’s mature poems. It seems to evolve with almost magical fluency. Ideas and images develop in startling directions and immediately crystallise in unforgettably vivid phrases. The voice flows through complicated sentence and stanza shapes that it seems to negotiate with ease. There’s a sense of balance and completeness throughout, whether at the level of phrase, stanza or whole poem. Take the first two lines:

The horizons ring me like faggots,
Tilted and disparate, and always unstable.

Plath is talking about instability, and makes you feel it both in the image of tilted, disparate, unstable horizons and in the quickening pulse of the second line, but the ideas are solidly planted, with a thoughtful pause at the end of line one, followed by the explanation. Throughout, it’s a poem that lingers over thoughts and impressions, that deliberates and qualifies, that allows time for ideas to ripen and sink in. The line endings work to reinforce punctuation by comma and full stop, subtly heightening the pauses and emphases implied by the grammatical construction rather than conflicting with them. To my mind the sense of instability is the more unsettling for being registered within and played against the solidity of the poem’s construction, as we find in a number of Plath’s poems.

The startling egocentricity of the poem is typical of Plath. From the first words almost till the end, everything keeps bending back to the speaker. The horizons ring her and elude her like false promises, the wind tries to funnel her heat away, the sheep take not things in general but her into the slots of their pupils, the sky leans not on the land but on her. She has a paranoid sense that the whole environment is personally and single-mindedly hostile to her.

But I think it achieves a kind of greatness that I don’t often find in Plath. The egocentricity is extreme but it isn’t imaginatively disabling. The landscape is unforgettably there in its physical desolation. The speaker sees the sheep with a hard, hostile and brilliantly satirical eye, where someone less selfish might have thought of them as suffering the bleakness of the weather as she suffers it. I think she speaks of the “too delicate” grass, the unhinged lintel and sill and the inarticulate air with contempt for their weakness and capitulation rather than pity for their misery, but she’s expressed that misery with almost unsurpassed intensity. Such metaphors of defeat, with the ruined houses, the whitening bones and the wind of destiny speak of a whole history of broken hopes and efforts, a history anyone can feel a sense of on those hills. When she writes “Darkness terrifies it” the insulation of contempt seems to melt away, and her own feelings to merge with those of the grass. In the last three lines I have no sense of the speaker or indeed of Plath, I feel I’m simply looking down into the narrow valleys as the lights come on –

Now in valleys narrow
And black as purses, the house lights
Gleam like small change.

I mean it as an enormous compliment when I say that those lines could have been written by the Larkin of “Nothing To Be Said”, not just because Larkin was a great poet but because the very anonymity of the ending seems like a stepping into something more universal than the sensibility of either Larkin or Plath.


2 Responses to “Sylvia Plath, “Wuthering Heights””

  1. kate said:

    Jul 28, 13 at 8:07 pm

    I think the poem is about Plath herself, her relationship with the external and often threatening environment. Its not about egocentricity, its about her acute feelings of vulnerability. Even the sheep look at with hostility. The grass is symbolic of her awareness of her own fragility, ‘too delicate’ – as indeed she was. She feels an awareness of her own death, all too close to her, as expressed in the image of the white bones – whose bones, we must ask? And, ‘Darkness terrifies it’. No,’Darkness terrifies ME’ is what she is trying to say, surely? Plath was a tormented and talented poet whose feelings were so raw and overwhelming she struggled with survival for almost all her life.I find the last stanza very sad as she speaks of narrow, black valleys – this is her experience talking – and she clings desperately to the house lights, tho’ she knows them to be ultimately insignificant, ‘small change’. There’s a dark sense here that nothing can protect her or save her, give her real hope. This is a remarkable poem from a truly great poet whose need for connection gave birth to her work and her work lends a rare insight into how it must feel to suffer the ‘instability’ that plagued her most of her short life.

  2. edmund said:

    Jul 29, 13 at 8:05 am

    Thank you for your comment, Kate. I agree with pretty well everything you say. My one reservation is that when you say that the poem isn’t about egocentricity I’d answer no, it isn’t about it but it is an extreme display of it. I was wrong to call this egocentricity “astonishing”; it’s probably a natural consequence of the acute feelings of vulnerability that you describe. “Startling” might have been a better word, because I think it’s one of those things that it’s startling to come up against even when you understand its causes.
    I hope it’s fair to feel that the poem takes us beyond Plath herself into the wider desolation of the scene, as well as presenting the things you’ve described with such eloquence and feeling.

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