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2. The ‘Edge’ of Sylvia Plath’s Critical History: A Reappraisal of Plath’s Work, 60 years after

Fear and Disillusionment: The EcoGothic in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath



Cet article analyse les éléments d’éco-Gothique que l’on trouve dans la poésie de Sylvia Plath. Il se concentrera en particulier sur les poèmes qui ont pour cadre le paysage du Yorkshire, cette région anglaise que Plath visita en compagnie de Ted Hughes, le poète anglais, après leur mariage. L’éco-Gothique cherche à évaluer les questions environnementales à l’aune du gothique et appartient à une sous-discipline de l’écocritique : cette dernière école critique peut se définir dans son acception la plus large comme ce qui cherche à évaluer les relations entre la culture et le monde non-humain. L’éco-Gothique utilise les tropes du genre gothique tels que la monstruosité, le sentiment d’enfermement, la peur, l’autre, l’inquiétante étrangeté, le refoulement, l’oppression et le sublime, pour illuminer les questions relevant de l’identité, des relations, du paysage et de l’environnement. Plus précisément, notre étude se concentrera sur les questions suivantes : comment Plath utilise-t-elle les éléments de l’éco-Gothique pour explorer les processus de domination patriarcale des femmes, comment le paysage du Yorkshire représente-t-il l’inquiétante étrangeté, en développant le sentiment de dislocation entre le moi et l’environnement autour que ressentent les énonciateurs ; comment Plath utilise des éléments du Sublime américain pour mettre en lumière la sensation d’une anxiété existentielle apportée par la rencontre avec des paysages où tout est à construire.

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1The Yorkshire village of Heptonstall looms high above the Calder Valley in the heart of the Pennine mountains in Northern England. It is a place steeped in history and myth, mentioned in the Domesday book of 1087, with its subsequent prosperity, and poverty, like many of the towns and villages in the area built upon the fortunes of the cloth industry. The houses are built from dark stone, the streets narrow and corners blind. It is an atmospheric place:

Picturesque, black and ancient, Heptonstall straggles along a steep slope near the top of a hill. Its gnarled old stone houses, slate roofed, seem to lean over the narrow main street – still cobbled when Sylvia knew it – that runs crookedly down through the village toward Hebden Bridge in the valley bottom (Stevenson 95).

2At the time of their wedding, The Beacon in Heptonstall was the home of Ted Hughes’s parents and it was here that he and Plath came for a holiday in September 1956. Upon seeing the wild, inhospitable landscape Plath declared in a letter to her mother:

I wish you could see your daughter now, a veritable convert to the Brontë clan in warm woollen sweaters, slacks, knee socks, with a steaming mug of coffee.
This is the most magnificent landscape [...] incredible hills, vivid green grass, with amazing deep creviced valleys feathered with trees, at the bottom of which clear peat-flavored streams run. (Letters Home 268)

3Plath wrote several poems during her visits that were inspired by the rugged landscape. In “November Graveyard” (Collected Poems 56) she uses that most gothic of motifs, the old graveyard, to write an elegy reflecting on death and the transient nature of life, while in “Black Rook in Rainy Weather” (Collected Poems 56-57) Plath serves up a gothic version of Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush”. The beauty of the landscape is captured most precisely in “The Great Carbuncle” (Collected Poems 62) a poem that is a retelling of a Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story of the same name that documents the adventures of eight people who are seeking out a beautiful, and valuable, jewel. In Hawthorne’s story those that find or see the jewel are cursed with tragedy and regret, except for a newly married couple, Matthew and Hannah who decide that they do not need to seek out the jewel to be happy and turn back from their quest and return home together. Plath draws together elements of the Hawthorne’s story with a local natural phenomenon where on high moorland at twilight the hands and faces of people become luminous in the dying light. In Plath’s poem her speaker and their companion come “over the moor-top/ Through air streaming and green-lit’ light, looking for a similar jewel that is ‘shown often, / Never given; hidden, yet / simultaneously seen”. There is a moment of epiphany where “The once-known way” becomes “[w]holly other” and everything becomes easy “and there is nothing / So fine we cannot do it”. For the moments that the speaker and her companion are caught in this beautiful light they are suspended in a state of ecstatic bliss, a feeling brought on primarily by the landscape in which they stand.

4Beside the beauty of the terrain, and the isolation of the location, another reason for Plath’s enthrallment with the area was its literary history. Only a few miles away from Heptonstall is the village of Haworth, another ancient place of habitation made prosperous on the back of the industrial revolution and where, in the village parsonage, the Brontë sisters Emily, Charlotte and Anne wrote some of the most famous novels in the literature canon. A favourite of Plath’s was Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, a gothic novel of doomed romance and wild landscapes which focuses on the self-destructive journey of Heathcliff, a man wracked with guilt, loss, anger and lust for his lost love Catherine. Wuthering Heights is a quintessential Gothic novel, set on a gloomy moor amidst dire weather, with a cast of archetypal villains and heroines, the use of supernatural and dream imagery and the themes of power, romance, fear, madness and death, all of which Plath would call on in her own poetry.

5Plath wrote home to her mother describing the wild beauty of the landscape, and of a memorable hike with Ted up to Top Withens, the reputed inspiration for the home of Cathy and Heathcliff in Brontë’s novel. Plath’s journals and letters effuse over the beauty and magical qualities of the landscape, but these positive descriptions of the moorland are antithetical to those transmuted into her poetry where the landscape becomes a foreboding, dangerous and ambivalent place where her human speakers are in danger of being overwhelmed and destroyed.

6This portrayal of the environment as a place of hostility and of how nature can construct atmospheres of fear and monstrosity is aligned closely with the EcoGothic, a new field within ecocriticism. Cheryll Glotfelty writes that

Ecocriticism takes as its subject the interconnection between nature and culture, specifically the cultured artefacts of language and literature. As a critical stance, it has one foot in literature and the other on land; as a theoretical discourse, it negotiates between the human and the nonhuman. (Glotfelty xix)

7The EcoGothic can therefore be seen as a merging between ecocritical and gothic studies.

8David Del Principe defines the EcoGothic as an approach that

poses a challenge to a familiar Gothic subject – nature – taking a non-anthropocentric position to reconsider the role that the environment, species, and non-humans play in the construction of monstrosity and fear. Ecofeminism has played a key role in shaping such a perspective, providing a theoretical base that, by exposing interlocking androcentric and anthropocentric hierarchies, misogyny and speciesism, seeks to question the mutual oppression of women, animals and nature. (Principe 1)

9Del Principe’s definition of the EcoGothic, with its secondary focus on Ecofeminism, can be applied to many of Plath’s poems where female speakers find themselves not only at odds with patriarchal forces inherent in their human relationships, but also find corresponding oppressive attributes in the environment.

10These correspondences are in play in Plath’s “The Snowman on the Moor” (Collected Poems 58), a poem that is replete with Gothic tropes and symbolism as it explores power dynamics, conflict, escape, dislocation of place and the uncanny. The poem begins with the language of conflict as an argument between two lovers has drawn to a stalemate, with their “armies” standing with “tottering banners”. This metaphor suggests that both combatants are in a shaky position, but it is the woman who has to flee from the room, suggesting her position of weakness within the relationship as she is the one who is made to retreat. The woman wants to believe that her retreat is not through a position of weakness, as she attempts to use it as way of exerting psychological pressure on her lover, demanding that he “come find” her, laying down her belief that his concern for her welfare will ultimately trump any feelings of anger that have been stoked through the argument. It is a risky ploy as she banks on his resolve breaking in the face of her possible endangerment, a ploy that ultimately backfires as her lover does not back down, remaining in the house “guarding his grim battlement” like some unfeeling gargoyle. This leaves the woman with two choices: either accept defeat and cede power to her lover by returning back to the room or, more recklessly, to push his resolve even further by fleeing into the dark, stormy night. The safe choice is to stay indoors and be “politic” to make “goodwill” but her pride and indignation forces her to flee into the “wind-harrowed hills and weltering mist”. These are places indicative of destruction and isolation, where life and vibrancy have been obliterated by the harsh and brutal conditions of winter. It is at this moment, when she leaves the familiar, although psychologically uncomfortable, surroundings of the house and enters the unknown, hostile night-time outer world that the traditional Gothic tropes, evident within the descriptions of the house and her interactions with her lover, transform into those of the EcoGothic, where the environment becomes a vehicle to represent fear and monstrosity.

11This is first explored with the depiction of the daisies, a flower symbolically linked with innocence and purity in Celtic mythology, which have been “beheaded” by the fierce wind. They are a warning, signifying the dangers that await in the outside world and foreshadow the appearance of the snowman who carries with him the heads of “Ladies’ sheaved skulls”, trophies that link the power and violence of nature with patriarchal dominance. It is from such dominance that the woman escapes at the beginning of the poem, fleeing from the restrictive, claustrophobic atmosphere of the house and oppression of her relationship. In the moment of escape she does not consider how dangerous the outside world is, as it is preferable to the toxic conditions in the house. The juxtaposition between the warmth and fire in the house and the cold snow on the moor accentuates the idea of separation and difference that characterise the two settings in the poem: the heat of rage and desire in the home versus the cold isolation and loneliness of the snowy, stormy moor.

12The woman’s fleeing onto the moor mirrors Chapter IX of Wuthering Heights where Heathcliff, after hearing of Catherine’s engagement to Edgar, flees into the wilderness in desperation. Catherine spends the night outdoors in the rain searching for him, almost losing her life in the process. It is surely this outcome that the speaker in Plath’s poem wants, as she mirrors Heathcliff’s retreat onto the moor hoping that her lover will risk his life in the same vein as Catherine hers. The speaker is, however, to be disappointed as the man is seemingly unmoved by her threats and actions. The message in the poem is clearly antithetical to that of the novel, that no one will come looking for you.

13In “The Snowman on the Moor” the woman’s despair at the state of her relationship urges her to take drastic action to both punish her lover for his attitude, and to also gain from him some sign of concern at her plight, to show some sign of affectionate response: she must therefore be the victor in their battle of wills “she must yet win / Him to his knees”. Her actions become impossible to predict or control “intractable” as she turns more desperate, and it is telling that she becomes “as a driven ghost” when she leaves the house, turning loose her humanity and becoming something insubstantial and unformed in relation to the power and magnitude of the wider world. Ghosts are an important motif in Brontë’s novel, where memories and experience haunt the moorland landscapes, driving characters mad with longing and regret. It is precisely this reaction that the woman in Plath’s poem wants to elicit from her lover, to drive him mad with remorse for his actions, just as Heathcliff exclaims in Brontë’s Wuthering Heights after the death of Catherine:

I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God, it is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul! (124)

14Plath doubles down on the Gothic tropes of isolation, escape and loneliness as the woman treks across the moor. The power dynamics within both the relationship and wider society are laid bare as she declares that only figures of authority “police”, historically symbols of patriarchal control, can be used to bring her back. She is cast as a fugitive, an outsider which emphasises her position as the “Other”. That she is “nursing” her rage, only further cements her gender defined role in the world.

15In her letters home to her mother, Plath describes the moorland around Heptonstall as

[a]n incredible, wild, green landscape of bare hills, crisscrossed by innumerable black stone walls like a spider’s web in which gray, woolly sheep graze, along with chickens and dappled brown-and-white cows. A wicked north wind is whipping a blowing rain against the little house and coal fires are glowing. (Letters Home 269)

16All such features have been obliterated in the vicious storm. Instead, the woman trudges “Through bare whistling heather” – with stanzas seven and eight imbued with a sibilant hiss that emphasises the hostility of the place – until she reaches “the world’s white edge”, a place representative of the blank emptiness embodied by the American sublime which Mary Arensberg terms “the inhuman, the realm of things beyond ourselves, the dimension of otherness we can never know.” (1) The key concerns of the American Sublime are vastness, blankness and emptiness, all of which are embodied with the poem. It is a concept that is, as Rob Wilson suggests:

founded in a mythology of detextualised whiteness. The American Sublime comprises on some primary level, the all-too-poetic wish for a phantasmic blank ground or tabula rasa, out of which a distinctly American poetic voice can begin. (11)

17For Plath this “American poetic voice” constitutes not only her transplanted American voice into the Yorkshire landscape and her intertextual response to the work of the Brontës, but also the search for her own distinct poetic voice that would come to full fruition in her late confessional style as seen in her posthumous collection Ariel.

18From a wider viewpoint the American Sublime can be viewed as a moving away from the traditions of European sublimity, an important feature within Gothic texts, with its theocentric focus through its communion with Nature, to a more solipsistic evaluation of the human condition. As Mary Arensberg suggests:

In the American brand of sublimity, the imagination finds itself the inhabitant of a place that is not its own, a vortex of atheism, which Wallace Stevens later called “the empty spirit/in vacant space.” Excluded from its own nature and shrinking from the white depths of nature’s abyss, the American self is the “dumb blankness” of the deconstructed self. (9-10)

19In many ways the American Sublime shows similarities with the atheistic philosophies of existential thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre. In “Existentialism and Humanism” Sartre declared that the first principle of existentialism is that “there is no human nature, because there is no God to have conception of it. Man simply is.” (Sartre 30). It is this negation of God and the placing of the self as the central concern in a world devoid of meaning and design that the American Sublime looks to confront in the hope of ascertaining a “reason” for existence. This search has a strong presence in American literature, as Edward Hirsch writes

Ever since Walt Whitman, poets have been magnetised by the power of the American Sublime, the engulfing space that Emerson delineates as “I and the Abyss,” the intractable sea that Stevens confronts in “The Idea of Order at Key West” (1936) … The strip of land at the boundary of the fathomless sea is comparable to the liminal space that Robert Frost repeatedly encounters at the edge of a dark wood, the majestic space where, as Emily Dickinson says memorably “The soul should stand in Awe”. The feeling of awe bears traces of a holiness galvanised and deepened by the mysterious presence of death. (620)

20In traditional Gothic texts night skies, shadow and impenetrable gloom mark similar limits

necessary to the constitution of an enlightened world and delineated the limitations of neoclassical perceptions. Darkness, metaphorically, threatened the light of reason with what it did not know. (Botting 32)

21By the time Plath was writing in the nineteen-fifties these dark Gothic spaces that represented ideas beyond “enlightened” thinking had been obliterated by the existential crisis brought on by the rise in atheism due to developments in natural science, such as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, the mass slaughter through the utilisation of mechanical warfare during World War One and the emergence of Modernism which viewed the world through a fractured lens. The dark spaces of the Romantic period that represented unknown ideas had been replaced by the blank abyssal whiteness that represented the nihilistic truth of the frailty of the human condition. In “The Snowman on the Moor” this liminal space is represented by the “world’s white edge” from where the speaker attempts to harness the power of the supernatural in order for her to fulfil her mission: she has reached the limits of her world and can only shout meaninglessly into the void.

22Plath’s poetry is filled with references to magic and the occult, and these mediums are often utilised by her speakers to gain power and authority for women over men. “The Snowman on the Moor” sees a similar invocation as the woman calls, not to God, but to Hell to send her agency in her attempts to “subdue an unruly man”. However, instead of receiving help in her quest from a “fire-blurting fork-tailed demon” she is instead confronted by an “austere, corpse-white / Giant” which gives her no aid nor assistance. This giant represents, in monstrous form, the blank sublime void first confronted earlier in the poem at “the world’s white edge”. The monster is a much more dangerous presence than that of her lover, and rather than finding a co-conspirator who she can bend to her will, she finds that there is “no love in his eye” for her and “Worse”, he carries with him a trophy-ladened “spike-studded belt” adorned with the sheaved skulls of women who have been punished for their presumed sense of importance in their dealings with “kings”. These trophies are representative of the subjugation of women by patriarchal forces and, through the transforming of the environment into a male figure of fear and violence show how the natural world is not a benign, benevolent place where the speaker can find solace and comfort. Instead, it mirrors the dwelling from which she has fled, finally causing the false bravado of the speaker’s attitude to fall away as she becomes “Humbled” resolving to return home, cowed and submissive because of the experience.

23Plath was obsessed with Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and made several visits to Top Withens, a derelict ruin high upon Haworth moor which was reputedly the inspiration for the farmhouse in Brontë’s novel:

We had a picnic in a field of purple heather; and the sun, by a miracle was out among luminous white clouds in a blue sky. There is no way to Wuthering Heights except by foot for several miles over the moors. How can I tell you how wonderful it is. Imagine yourself on top of the world, with all the purplish hills curving away, and grey sheep grazing with horns curling and black demonic faces and yellow eyes… black walls of stone, clear streams from which we drank; and, at last, a lovely, deserted black stone house, broken down, clinging to the windy side of a hill. I began a sketch of the sagging roof and stone walls. (Letters Home 268-69)

24“Two Views of Withens” (Collected Poems 71) is a poem that uses these hikes to the remote farmhouse as inspiration. However, rather than the bucolic purplish hills and clear streams that Plath describes in her letters home, the landscape invoked in the poem is much more menacing and inhospitable and draws off several Gothic tropes to create a sense of foreboding and fear.

25Throughout the poem there is a keen sense of dislocation and otherworldliness. This is introduced in the first line of the poem where the speaker places the action “Above” the real-world. It is a place that is distant and inhospitable with its “whorled, spindling gorse”, where existence is difficult, and the only things that can survive are sharp, hardy gorse and rugged sheep. It is no place for people, for beauty. The only signs of human existence are the stone walls and ridgepoles which demarcate the boundaries between the civilised world and the wilderness of the moor beyond, but even these landmarks are not fully grounded in reality as they are blurred by fog. It is another encounter, as in “The Snowman on the Moor” with the blank void of the American Sublime, with the weather acting as an agent of change, erasing the presence of people and adding to the sense of dislocation felt by the speaker.

26Plath develops this idea of “other” worlds through her description of the landscape as an “hinterland”, a place that is far away from civilisation, that is unknown and rarely visited by people, as even the hikers who venture out onto the moor do not make it this far. Plath’s development of the ship simile here is apt as it brings together the idea of long journeys and exploration into unchartered lands. This links explicitly to Gothic tropes through defamiliarization of place, in this case made even more so by the fog which masks and obscures the recognisable features of the moorland.

27This sense of dislocation is further developed through the speaker’s description of the “uncatchable” animals that live on the moor. The “sagehen” is a species of American grouse found predominantly in the Western states. Their counterpart on the moors above Haworth would typically be the red or black grouse, birds that are bred for shooting. In the poem they, like the “spry” rabbits, become impervious to the actions of people and are unconcerned by the presence of the speaker. In this landscape it is the human that is other and dislocated from their reality. This idea is given greater weight when Plath’s language choices are considered: she has chosen to use the American “sagehen” rather than the British “grouse”, signifying the out of place nature of a non-native on the moor.

28The poem ends with the speaker, after a trek of miles across the inhospitable moor “over hill / and hill” through “peaty water” and “bare moor”, finally reaching their destination. This act of pilgrimage through the “colorless weather” is ultimately disappointing for they find not the “House of Eros”, the Greek god of Love and desire but a “Low-lintelled, no palace”. The speaker has built up an imagined fantasy of what they would find at the end of the journey, but the reality is sobering. It is not a palace of love but a ruinous shell, dilapidated and weather-beaten. The speaker then steps aside and addresses a “You” who is somewhat “luckier” as they find, instead, a place of “white pillars, blue sky”, a palace of love that represents the dream and unspoilt fantasy that the speaker has moulded from their reading of Wuthering Heights. In the cold-light of reality however this fantasy has collapsed because of the tough, uncompromising features and processes of the landscape that the speaker has had to endure on their pilgrimage to the ruins. This conflict between reality and fantasy is a key component of the Gothic text and, in the case of “Two Views of Withens”, it is the juxtaposition of the real-world environment with the literary fantasy of Brontë’s Wuthering Heights that dispels the speaker’s romantic notions.

29“Wuthering Heights” (Collected Poems 167) and “Hardcastle Crags” (62) are poems of escape, isolation, the ambivalence of nature to the survival of people and of pervasive ecophobia. As in “Two Views of Withens”, the speaker in “Wuthering Heights” is initially occupied with their isolated place in the landscape, away from civilisation. “The horizons” trap the speaker, blocking their escape. The landscape is “tilted”, “disparate” and “unstable” so the speaker is unable to gain a sense of equilibrium and balance, building up a fraught anxiousness that keeps them on their guard. The “faggots” of the horizon become a menacing threat that brings to mind the idea of a witch trial, placing the female speaker as “other” in the landscape as someone who is not only unwelcome but who is also in danger. This is developed further through the “color” of the moorland whose khaki browns and greens resemble the camouflaged clothing of a soldier. There is a sense that the speaker is in conflict with the environment, especially as it seems to be actively working against their attempts to make progress as the horizons, in a further embodiment of the American Sublime, “dissolve and dissolve” into nothingness. This “bare moorland” is not a place for people with only the hardy sheep able to eek out a kind of existence in the extreme conditions. The speaker is dislocated from civilisation and is borne on some kind of quest; Plath’s language of expectation – “Destiny”, “promises”, “horizons”, “distances”, “step forward” are all indicative of approach – but what they are expecting is never made clear. What is clear is that the speaker’s presence in such an inhospitable landscape is taking a physical and mental toll. The speaker has no power to fight the wind as it bends everything in one direction. Powerless, she has little strength to stop the conditions from “trying / To funnel my heat away”. Plath expands on this sense of vital loss through the stark, uncanny imagery of the heather inviting the speaker to “whiten” her “bones among them”. Anyone who has walked on moorland after heather has been burnt will have seen the unnerving remnants of charred stalks that look like bones rising from the ground. The sheep too are othered into more sinister beings. They are complicit with the weather and landscape, their “Dirty wool clouds” mixing with the grey, dissolving weather to create a illusory atmosphere of dissipation. This is enhanced further through the description of their eyes whose “black slots” become portals through which the “thin silly message” of her presence is looked upon with cool insignificance. Their “grandmotherly disguise” which should give some semblance of comfort only increases the sense of disconnection with the world, with the anthropocentric features of the sheep with their “wig curls and yellow teeth” creating a grotesque parody of familial recognition. One can think here also of the fairy tale “Red Riding Hood”, where the eponymous character was attacked by a wolf disguised as a grandmother, adding another layer of sinister ambiguity to the attitudes of the sheep.

30The speaker’s isolation is magnified further through the description of the hollow doorstops and unhinged lintels and sills, artefacts that explicitly declare the defeat of people by the environment. This is not a place where people are able to sustain a good quality of life, but are instead driven off the moor and their houses turned into symbols of retreat. The speaker has become so despondent by this point in their isolation that they are looking for any kind of glimmer of reassurance that they can hold on to, attributing pathetic fallacy to the call of the wind which “remembers a few odd syllables” of language. The wind’s call is, of course, nothing of the sort but the speaker needs to cling to such an idea to stop themselves from being completely cut off from the human world, becoming horizontal – laying down to die – because of the malaise in which they find themselves. It seems as though nature is willing this, as the “sky leans” on them, trying to push them down. The speaker’s experience is a far cry from Plath’s own experience on the moor when she stated that

[c]limbing along the ridges of the hills, one has an airplane view of the towns in the valley. Up here, it is like sitting on top of the world, and in the distance the purple moors curve away. I have never been so happy in my life; it is wild and lonely. (Letters Home 269)

31The poem does end on a note of hope however, with the houses down in the valley suggesting the indestructability of human life. Yes, the people may have been driven off the moor, but they have regrouped elsewhere and have made lives for themselves. The lights “gleam like small change” showing the inconsequential nature of people in the face of universal power.

32A similar experience is had by the speaker in “Hardcastle Crags” which, like “The Snowman on the Moor” charts a journey into a hostile landscape which ultimately ends in a retreat to safety. Hardcastle Crags is a valley around two miles north of Heptonstall. The area encompasses deep ravines and a few hundred acres of oak, beech and pine woodland. It was a favoured destination of the Brontë sisters who would often walk from Haworth to take in the dramatic scenery of tall cliffs and tumbling streams. The speaker in “Hardcastle Crags” is in no way on a sight-seeing tour as she rushes away from civilisation. Plath invokes the traditional Gothic tropes of darkness, moonlight and isolation to create a foreboding atmosphere as the woman ventures out into ever more desolate locales. Her feet collide with the stone street, the first inclination of the disconnection with the landscape. The echoes that bounce off the stone walls amplify her isolation as she is only able to give back her own sound. Once she is beyond the relative safety of the village the only sound that can be heard is the sinister sibilant seethe of the grasses, a sound of animosity and mistrust. The moonlight, which should offer some sort of comfort as it illuminates the night only enhances the ambivalence of nature through the imagery of the sea. Gloomy nightscapes are a key trope in Gothic texts because

[g]loom cast perceptions of formal order and unified design into obscurity; its uncertainty generated both a sense of mystery and passions and emotions alien to reason. (Botting 32)

33Plath’s poem draws off similar tropes and imagery as used by Emily Brontë in chapter twelve of Wuthering Heights. In the chapter, Catherine is in a state of delirium after she realises that she is dying and laments her lost love for Heathcliff. In her agitated state she moves towards the window, looking out into the dark night and claiming that she can see Wuthering Heights in the distance:

There was no moon, and everything beneath lay in misty darkness: not a light gleamed from any house, far or near, all had been extinguished long ago: and those at Wuthering Heights were never visible – still she asserted she caught their shining. (Brontë 93)

34Similar feelings of disconsolation and psychological unbalance can be seen in Plath’s poem where the woman walks in a “blank mood” of depression. Once out of the “dream-peopled village” – another description that blurs the boundary between the physical and ethereal – she becomes more and more dejected as she heads further into the dark night, losing her vigour and intent as the weather and landscape pare her down to “a pinch of flame”. This reduction of feeling and vitality mirrors the feelings of the speaker in Plath’s “Wuthering Heights” where the wind tries to “funnel my heat away”, a suggestion then in both poems that isolation on the moorland is dangerous and deadly. In “Hardcastle Crags” this sense that nature is impassionate and ambivalent to the speaker’s condition is developed further through the juxtaposition of the vital life force of the speaker “the beat/ of her heart” and the “humped indifferent iron” of the hills into which she walks.

35There are other living things in the landscape but these are safely secured in “Barns” “behind shut doors” and in the “meadow” and trees of the valley. These animals are a part of the landscape and are afforded the comfort and security that is inherent in a position of belonging. It is the woman who is “other”, an unfamiliar presence who is an uninvited trespasser into a place that she has no reason to be. Just like in “The Snowman on the Moor”, she is confronted by a sublime landscape that overwhelms her – an “antique world” that represents primordial earth “of lymph and sap” before people populated it. This entering into such an inhospitable, alien place is “Enough to snuff the quick/ of her small heat out” and, just like in “The Snowman on the Moor” she loses her resolve to go any further and turns back to civilisation.

36In her moorland poems Plath equates the passion, anger and desire of her speaker with heat – also shown at the start of “Hardcastle Crags” with allusions to fire: “flintlike”, “steely”, “ignite” “tinder”, “firework”. Similar imagery is used in “The Snowman on the Moor” to depict the argument between the man and the woman as she leaves him “Glowering at the coal-fire” and in “Wuthering Heights” where the wind threatens to “funnel my heat away”. These images are indicative of life force in Plath’s work, and they are clearly juxtaposed with the coolness and languor of death. Being alive in Plath’s poetry is related to the idea of feeling things in their fullest possible dimensions, which often equates to her speakers acting impetuously or recklessly when they are caught in the full blaze of passion, but when this wears off darker, more threatening thoughts take over, thoughts that overwhelm and incline towards destruction and isolation. When this happens the speakers realise that that they have to turn back to people and civilisation to revitalise themselves. Ultimately, there is little room in Plath’s Yorkshire poetry for sentimentality or for nature as a healing force. It is more often than not a force that is other, alien, and offers only isolation, loneliness and the promise of destruction.

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Arensberg, Mary. “Introduction: The American Sublime.” The American Sublime, edited by Mary Arensberg. State University of New York Press, 1986, pp. 1-20.

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Colin BANCROFT, « Fear and Disillusionment: The EcoGothic in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath »e-Rea [En ligne], 21.1 | 2023, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2023, consulté le 24 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Chichester University
Colin Bancroft holds a PhD in the Ecopoetics of Robert Frost from Chichester University, England. His poetry pamphlet “Impermanence” was released with Maytree Press in 2020 and “Kayfabe” (2021) and “Knife Edge” (2022) with Broken Sleep. He is editor at Nine Pens Press and runs the poetry resource website Poets' Directory.

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