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Lost Hughes poem addresses Sylvia Plath’s suicide directly.

October 8, 2010


The happy couple, 1956, the year they married.


A previously unknown poem describes the anguish and rage Ted Hughes experienced after the suicide of his wife, fellow poet Sylvia Plath. Titled “Last Letter,” it’s already being declared “shattering,” “a great poem” that “speaks to suicide in the way that a Shakespearean tragedy does.”

The poem, which Hughes apparently worked on over the course of some 30 years, appeared in The New Statesman magazine yesterday. Author and British TV personality Melvyn Bragg discovered three drafts of the poem in the Ted Hughes archive at the British museum with the guidance of the poet’s widow, Carol.

Plath, of course, is the American poet and novelist who detailed struggles with mental illness in the semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar. She died in 1963, at the age of 30, by putting her head in the oven. She became a feminist icon when the searing Ariel poems, which can be read as a response to the pain of patriarchal oppression, were published in 1966.

The Ariel poems, coupled with the fact Plath killed herself after Hughes left her and their two children for another woman, made him a villain among some feminists. His rise to become one of Britain’s greatest 20th century poets — he served as poet laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998 — only inflamed those who blamed him for Plath’s death.

Hughes looked even worse when Assia Weevil, the women he left Plath for, killed herself in 1969, taking their four-year-old daughter with her.

For most of his life Hughes was silent on the matter of Plath’s death, which gave him the appearance of being callous, perhaps little more than a cad attached to a huge poetic talent. Shortly before his death, however, he published Birthday Letters, a collection of poems about his relationship with Plath.

Some consider Birthday Letters Hughes’ masterpiece, but this is a sentimental view. His reputation hinges on the modernist nature poems collected in volumes such as Hawk in the Rain (1957) or Crow (1970).

Still, the Birthday Letters poems are fine, indeed, showing Hughes in sometimes unflattering light as he struggles with his love for a complicated, disturbed wife. I reviewed the book for the Sun-Sentinel when it first came out, if you’re curious.

Apparently Hughes originally meant to include “Last Letter,” but pulled it from the collection just before publication. In it, Hughes tracks the last three days before Plath’s suicide, during which she sent him a good-bye letter — that apparently arrived too soon:

“Late afternoon Friday, my last sight

of you alive,

Burning your letter to me in the ashtray

with that strange smile.

What did you say over the smoking

shards of that letter,

So carefully annihilated, so calmly,

That let me release you and leave

you to blow its ashes off your plan.

John Walsh, writing in the Independent, declares “Last Letter” to be “a great poem,” and analyzes its evolution through the three handwritten drafts. Hughes “carefully removed” any last endearments spoken by Plath from the final typescript version of the poem, Walsh suggests, “as though concerned that to include them might sound self-exculpatory.”

Carol Ann Duffy, Britain’s current poet laureate, called the poem “almost unbearable to read,” likening it to a Shakespearean tragedy: “There is a kind of deafening agony, blinding agony to this new poem. It seems to touch a deeper, darker place than any poem he’s ever written.”

You can find her comments, and a complete text of “Last Letter,” at the Daily Mail. You can also see actor Jonathan Pryce reading the poem for Channel 4 News.

Will this be enough to humanize Hughes in the eyes of those who still blame him for Plath’s death? Probably not. Such hardened allegiances prove remarkably resistant to new information, new impressions.

But for the rest of us, for anyone will to view the Plath/Hughes tragedy from both sides, “Last Letter” deepens our sympathies, our understanding, our appreciation for these two gifted and troubled artists.

A final note of almost unbelievable coincidence, the kind of thing readers would not tolerate in a novel (unless, of course, it was by Jonathan Franzen, who shows no wariness toward deus ex machina in Freedom), Melvyn Bragg has also been touched by suicide.

Not just by any suicide, but one of a kind eerily familar: His first wife, a lifelong depressive, killed herself after he left for another woman.

I leave you to ponder the grand, sad weirdness of this world.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 8, 2010 12:34 pm

    Sad beyond measure. And yet strangely beautiful that such powerful poetry blossomed from unbearable tragedy and a leftover life to kill.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 8, 2010 2:26 pm

      Talented artists have problems, too, I guess the lesson here must be. But they also have the ability to give voice to their agonies — unlike a girlfriend’s brother, who put a shotgun in his mouth at 17, or another friend’s boyfriend, who hanged himself from a tree in the back yard, or the dear, dear friend who chose the glacial suicide of addiction, drinking himself to death by 45, having, by the end, alienated almost everyone who ever loved him…

      • October 8, 2010 3:03 pm

        Sigh… I think I know a thing or two about those self-destructive types without the ability to transform their suffering into anything meaningful or beautiful… Not all suicides take their lives but, as with the case of your dear friend above, eventually manage to exhaust the good-will of those around who care for them

  2. October 8, 2010 12:52 pm

    Truly terrible fate to contemplate: hers, his and all those touched by such… waste. Hughes’ poem can only inspire pity, straining at the limits of reason to fathom & gaze into the abyss.
    Below, my (minor) poem on the subject:

    To Sylvia Plath

    Sleepwalking she prepared breakfast
    for her still dreaming children, before
    breaking fast, to satisfy her appetite

    no fire needed, she all-consuming flame
    bravely cowered on the kitchen floor
    and slaked an antique thirst on vapor

    laying her dream-tormented head to rest
    she took premature or belated leave, set
    out to sea, having found no harbor here.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 8, 2010 2:21 pm

      I’d love to hear Jonathan Pryce read that on Channel 4.

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