A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Ted And Sylvia

For a poet to marry a poet it's a dangerous thing. But for a poetic genius to marry a poetic genius it's nothing short of disaster. But would we have Birthday Letters had Hughes married a tart-baking housewife and card-carrying member of the WI? And would we have Ariel had Plath married a kindly but boring young curate or carpet salesman? And does it matter anyway? It's only poetry, after all.

After Plath's suicide in 1963, Hughes' lover, Assia Wevill, also took her own life 6 years later. To lose one wife may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness. However he did achieve some kind of stability after marrying Carol Orchard in 1970.

Biographers tend to side prejudicially on one side or the other, pro-Hughes or pro-Plath. Myself, I prefer the more balanced approach favoured by Elaine Feinstein in her excellent biography Ted Hughes: The Life Of A Poet. But who, even Feinstein, knows the real truth of their relationship? It will remain a mystery, thank God - like all relationships.

Some time ago I took a walk in Hughes Country and just recently I dug out my account of it. Here it is.

Remains Of Elmet

The Calder Valley in the South Pennines forms part of the old Celtic kingdom of Elmet. It's the birthplace of Ted Hughes, and the place to which he returned constantly throughout his life. Read anything from his collection Remains Of Elmet and you are immediately transported to this land of sodden moorlands and ancient trackways, bubbling curlews and blackened gritstone; a harsh, brooding landscape littered with deserted cotton mills and abandoned hill farms.

Heptonstall hunkers down on the high buttress above Hebden Bridge. It was here I began my walk one cold and misty February morning. But not before exploring Heptonstall itself - an authentic example of a hand-weaving village from the pre-industrial era. Much like a mini-Haworth in fact, but without the tourists and the commercial tat. Terraced rows of houses, faced with blackened stone blocks, slope down to a churchyard wrapped in peaceful, Gothic gloom and paved with gravestones laid end-to-end like a mosaic. There are two churches almost side-by-side: the Victorian New Parish Church of St Thomas the Apostle, and the atmospheric ruin of the earlier Church of St Thomas a Becket - built around 1260, destroyed by storm in 1847 and condemned by the itinerant preacher John Wesley as 'the ugliest church I know'. However in its derelict state it's certainly a lot prettier than the octagonal Methodist Chapel (designed by Wesley in 1764) which lies marooned in the architectural warp and weft of numerous gritstone weavers' cottages. Before leaving I sought out the grave (second row in the new churchyard) of the neurasthenic poetic genius Sylvia Plath who committed suicide in 1963. The headstone, inscribed by her husband Ted Hughes, reads:

  Even Amidst Fierce Flames The Golden Lotus Can be Planted.

Pondering this quotation from the great allegorical Chinese folk novel Monkey, written in the sixteenth century by Wu Ch'Eng-en, and delighting in the wonderful strangeness of its setting amid the scores of conventional Christian epitaphs, I turned my back on the village and scampered down a steep rocky bridleway (the Calderdale Way) to a stone packhorse bridge spanning Hebden Water. On the eastern bank an entertaining riverside path followed a frothy, rust-coloured, dipper-haunted stream, which was enlivened by weirs now and then, and pacified by mill ponds. The next landmark was Gibson Mill. This was a cotton mill built by Abraham Gibson in 1800 which employed mainly women and children. Despite the installation of a steam engine, boiler and chimney in the 1860s, manufacturing ceased in the 1890s due to unreliable water flow and competition from much larger mills in the Calder Valley. After the mill, a short woodland stretch rose to Hardcastle Crags, a beauty spot popular with Victorian excursionists.

Emerging from the trees, a remote lane wound over a culvert where a beck tumbled down into Rowshaw Clough. Just before Walshaw Farm the call of birds suddenly filled the silence. Finches twittered and swooped, and a party of fieldfares flew off chacking madly, their grey rumps prominent. From the moorland above a solitary grouse croaked loudly. Close by the farm I made a right-angled turn up a muddy walled track and headed through tussocky intake fields towards the higher ground. I contoured round Shackleton Knoll alongside an enclosing stone wall until a gate led on to the moor itself. This was the high point of the walk in every sense. The sun was now out, illuminating high mooorland and intake pastures, and burning off the tendrils of mist which still lingered in the valley of Crimsworth Dean beyond. I rested a while on this soggy bump between the two valleys, and enjoyed the sun, the view, and the silvery gleam of Gorple Lower Reservoir to the west. There are many places higher, many places more remote, many places more obviously spiritual; but for me, today, this was a contemplative viewpoint of space and freedom.

And so I went down again into the Vale, as go down we must, and met the first walkers of the day who were struggling up the hill I now descended. The route back led through Crimsworth Dean and past a stand of tall Scots Pine trees which clung to the steep slopes above the beck. I remembered how Lord Savile had given this woodland to the National Trust in 1951; and how, a few years later, he and the local people had scuppered plans to flood this valley and turn it into a reservoir. Eventually, after taking a minor road by Spring Wood and then following a lovely riverine path strewn with moss-covered stumps and stones, I reached another packhorse bridge and the delighfully scruffy backstreets of Hebden Bridge. These were lined with factories and new developments - and also with tiny, terraced houses, dark inside, but on the outside hung with wind chimes and festooned with plant pots placed on old rescued treadle-driven spinning machines. This textile town has a claustrophobic, gritty charm: rough, unmodernised pubs, sixties-style signage, no McDonalds (thankfully) in sight. But the relentless economic decline over the years has been oddly reversed by a kind of latter-day New Age flowering. The shops are chock-full of candles, tarot decks and occult books; and artistically printed cards in newsagents' windows advertise courses in reiki, shiatsu and meditation.

Tearing myself away from this hippie settlement with its stone setts and its Little Theatre, from its shabby Rochdale Canal, where Ted Hughes used to net loach as a boy, and its grey wagtails bobbing on the now non-poisonous River Calder, I returned by bus up the steep hill to Heptonstall in the mid-afternoon sun, and looked down through the bus window at Hebden Bridge in the valley below. I saw rows and rows of terraced houses striating the hillside, home-factories (three, four, five-storied and many-windowed for maximum light) in which women used to turn wool into the yarn and cloth that was conveyed originally by packhorse, then later by canal boat, to the merchants in the piece halls of Halifax. At least I could see the place - a hundred years ago it would have been hidden by a vast, toxic pall of smoke generated by the cotton mills of the Industrial Revolution.

Five hours had passed and I was sitting once more on a wooden bench in Heptonstall's old churchyard and listening to the chattering jackdaws, thinking about literary and industrial heritage, and of what Ted Hughes had written about this very spot:

A great bird landed here.

Its song drew men out of rock,
Living men out of bog and heather.

Its song put a light in the valleys
And harness on the long moors.

Its song brought a crystal from space
And set it in men's heads.

Then the bird died.

Its giant bones
Blackened and became a mystery.

The crystal in men's heads
Blackened and fell to pieces.

The valleys went out.
The moorland broke loose.

Heptonstall Old Church from Remains Of Elmet by Ted Hughes.


Pagan Sphinx said...

Hello, Solitary Walker

I saw your comment at Singbear's blog and clicked on your profile, arriving at your blog.

I was instantly interested in the top post when I saw the photo you posted of Plath and Hughes. I'm a fan of Plath and last year read Wintering, a novel with biographical features, about Plath. It was spectacular and I highly recommend it.

As for Assia Weavil. Did you know that she killed her and Hughes young daughter before she took her own life? Very tragic.

Also of interest is Frida Hughes, the daughter of Plath and Hughes. According to some accounts I've read, she's been quite hostile in trying to prevent certain tellings of her mother's story, including the novel Wintering and the movie Sylvia. If you google her name or Sylvia's you may find some of these accounts interesting.

Thanks for a great post.


The Solitary Walker said...

It is indeed a tragic story. Haven't read that novel 'Wintering' but must look out for it.

It's difficult to apportion'blame' for the tragic events. In fact, I don't think we have the right to do so - as no one can ever be in possession of the full facts. Though quite a few biographers seem to take Plath's side fanatically. There was a period when Ted Hughes' name was constantly being defaced on Plath's gravestone in Heptonstall churchyard.