A newly discovered poem by Ted Hughes entitled "The Last Letter," provides unprecedented insight into the last few days of the brilliant and groundbreaking American poet, Sylvia Plath.
Hughes and Plath had a fiery, at times explosive, marriage. Shortly after Hughes left her and their two children for one of Plath's good friends, Plath succumbed to depression and committed suicide. Adding to the tragedy that seemed to follow Hughes, that other woman also killed herself, along with the couple's four-year-old daughter, six years later.
Many vilified Hughes for his actions and his apparent lack of remorse; he didn't address the issue of Plath's suicide for more than 35 years. But just a few months before his death, he published the illuminating collection "Birthday Letters," a book that many critics consider to be among the most important poetry collections of the 20th Century. The New Statesman aptly describes "The Last Letter," as the missing keystone of that collection, as it heartbreakingly recounts the last few days of Plath's life.
In it, Hughes describes confronting Plath just a few days before her death over a suicide letter that reached him too soon. Plath managed to convince Hughes to release her.
Late afternoon Friday, my last sight of you alive
Burning your letter to me in the ashtray
with that strange smile.
Had I bungled your plan?
Had it surprised me sooner than you purposed?
Had I rushed it back to you to promptly?
One hour later, you would have been gone
Where I could not have traced you.
I would have turned from your locked red door
that nobody would open, still holding your letter,
a thunderbolt that could not earth itself.
That would have been electric shock treatment for me
repeated over and over all weekend
as often as I read it or thought of it.
That would have remade my brains and my life.
The treatment that you planned needed some time.
I cannot imagine how I would have got through that weekend.
I cannot imagine.
Had you plotted it all?
I moved fast through the snow-blue February London twilight,
wept with relief when you opened the door,
a huddle of riddles in solution,
precocious tears that failed to interpret to me,
failed to divulge their real import.
But 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 bow its ashes off your plan.
Off the ashtray against which you would leave for me to read
The doctor's phone number.
Hughes goes on to describe his own emotional struggle then in a devastating fashion:
My numbed love life with its two mad needles
embroidering their rose,
piercing and tugging at their tapestry,
their bloody tattoo somewhere behind my navel
treading that morass of emblazon.
Two mad needles crisscrossing their stitches,
selecting among my nerves for their colors ...
Two women, each with her needle.
The poem ends with Hughes remembering how he received the news that Plath had died, the voice on the phone like a "measured injection."
And I had started to write when the telephone
Jerked awake, in a jabbering alarm,
Remembering everything. It recovered in my hand.
Then a voice like a selected weapon
Or a measured injection, Coolly delivered its four words
Deep into my ear: 'Your wife is dead.'
British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy told the "BBC" news that reading the poem "feels a bit like looking into the sun as it's dying." She continued, "It seems to touch a deeper, darker place than any poem he's ever written."
"BBC" news channel four hired the actor Jonathan Pryce to read the poem in full. You can watch it here. The New Statesman is publishing the poem (with the blessing of Hughes' second wife, Carol) in its entirety in this week's issue.