“What happened that night?
Your final night.”
So begins “Last Letter,” a poem, or rather draft of a poem, by Ted Hughes published in the October 11 issue of the British magazine the New Statesman. “Last Letter” was clearly intended to take its place in Hughes’s 1998 collection of poems to Plath, Birthday Letters, but it’s also clear that he never managed to finish it before he died on October 28, 1998. I suppose anything a poet as famous as Hughes didn’t get around to destroying before he died is likely to end up in the public domain eventually, and certainly a poem that at last sets out what he was up to on that fatal, freezing weekend of February 9 and 10 of 1963 was not going to languish in the British Library’s archive forever.
The decision to publish the poem was taken by Melvyn Bragg, guest editor for that issue of the New Statesman, and a long-time friend of the poet, and Hughes’s widow Carol. The poem was instantly praised by the current poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, who on Channel 4 News compared its power to that of Shakespearean tragedy, and declared:
It seems to me to be the darkest poem that he wrote about the death of Sylvia Plath. 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.
There’s undoubtedly plenty of agony in the poem, but its power to move is closer to that of an uncontrolled diary entry than of a speech by King Lear or Macbeth.
“Last Letter” is unlikely to do much to rehabilitate Hughes with those who hold him responsible for the death of the great young star of American poetry—and for the suicide of Assia Wevill, his companion after Plath’s death, some six years later. (Like Plath, Assia gassed herself, and killed her four-year old daughter by Hughes, Shura, as well.) It was his affair with Assia, begun in the summer of 1962, that precipitated his separation from Plath, and a decisive moment in Birthday Letters, his narrative of the events leading up to Plath’s suicide, comes in the poem “The Inscription,” which recounts an occasion when husband and wife nearly got back together; in the course of this almost-reconciliation, however, Plath’s eyes happen to fall on Hughes’s edition of Shakespeare, a volume that in a fit of fury she had earlier ripped to pieces. The book has been miraculously “resurrected”:
Wondering, with unbelieving fingers,
She opened it. She read the inscription. She closed it
Like the running animal that receives
The fatal bullet without a faltering check
In its stride.
The resurrector of the book who inscribed it was of course Assia.
Well, Assia Wevill, or so “Last Letter” tells us, was not the woman in whose arms Hughes spent the weekend his wife committed suicide; he was in fact with one Susan Alliston. Alliston, like Plath, was a poet who would die young—not by her own hand, but of Hodgkin’s disease, in 1969. (By a curious coincidence an edition of her Poems and Journals, 1960–1969, with an introduction by Hughes, was published earlier this year by Richard Hollis Press—now there’s a book whose sales will have seen a sudden spike.)
It’s odd that Alliston had previously not figured in accounts of the Hughes/Plath split, or ones I’ve come across (she’s not mentioned, for instance, in Elaine Feinstein’s gossipy unauthorized biography of 2001, which is frank about many of his other affairs), because Hughes actually acknowledges his dalliance with Alliston in the poem “18 Rugby Street” collected in Birthday Letters. 18 Rugby Street, in Bloomsbury, was where he and Plath got together for the first time. Susan Alliston lived in the same building, and the poem informs us that she would later be “caught in the labyrinth,” “would be holding me from my telephone/Those nights you would need me most.”
This is how he presents their weekend together in “Last Letter”:
My dellarobbia Susan. I moved
With the circumspection
Of a flame in a fuse. My whole fury
Was an abandoned effort to blow up
The old globe where shadows bent over
My telltale track of ashes. I raced
From and from, face backwards, a film reversed,
Towards what? We went to Rugby St
Where you and I began.
Why did we go there? Of all places
Why did we go there? Perversity
In the artistry of our fate
Adjusted its refinements for you, for me
And for Susan. Solitaire
Played by the Minotaur of that maze….
Susan and I spent that night
In our wedding bed. I had not seen it
Since we lay there on our wedding day.
I did not take her back to my own bed.
It had occurred to me, your -weekend over,
You might appear—a surprise visitation.
Did you appear, to tap at my dark window?
So I stayed with Susan, hiding from you,
In our own wedding bed—the same from which
Within three years she would be taken to die
In that same hospital where, within twelve hours,
I would find you dead.
It’s not easy to work out quite what he means by “dellarobbia”—presumably a reference to a work by either Luca or Andrea della Robbia, Renaissance Florentine sculptors. He’s probably implying that she was a figure of sweetness and calm in comparison to Sylvia and Assia, whom the poem likens to “two mad needles” embroidering “their bloody tattoo/Somewhere behind my navel…criss-crossing their stitches,/Selecting among my nerves/For their colours.” But the rest is pretty clear—though in fact not quite true, or so an old Cambridge friend of Hughes’s called Daniel Huws, has suggested. (Huws’s Memories of Ted Hughes, 1952–1963 has also just been published, by the same press as Alliston’s journals and poems.)
On October 17, a week after the publication of “Last Letter,” Huws gave a talk at Mytholmroyd in Yorkshire and noted various inaccuracies in the poem, including the fact that Susan Alliston’s flat was the one above that in which Hughes and Plath began their lives together, and which in fact they had rented from Daniel Huws’s father. So it probably wasn’t really their “wedding bed” in which he slept with Susan Alliston while Plath opened the gas taps—perhaps not much of an extenuating factor, but a very slight relief. In a post on the Sylvia Plath Info website the Plath scholar Gail Crowther records Huws’s suggestion that “Last Letter” was written “towards the end of Hughes’ life and thus any inaccuracies [are] perhaps due to the passing of time, or maybe even poetic liberties.” It’s worth noting that if the poem does indeed take “liberties” with the truth, these liberties seem designed to intensify, rather than alleviate, Hughes’s coruscating sense of his own guilt.
Al Alvarez, who spent much time with Plath in the terrible months of late 1962 and early 1963, has mounted the fiercest denunciation of “Last Letter.” In a piece in The Guardian of October 11 he called it “more a document than a poem” and pronounced it “uncooked.” What we get, Alvarez suggests, is “a confession: he is a guy in the witness box pleading guilty. It’s very strong stuff, but it ain’t finished.” Four days later, however, Alvarez decided he hadn’t been harsh enough on Hughes in his original piece. The problem with “Last Letter,” he now asserted, was less one of “bad poetry” and more one of “bad conscience”:
He was indeed a man in the dock, but the crimes he was pleading guilty to were treachery, double-dealing and shabby behaviour, and there was nothing noble or tragic about them. He had abandoned Sylvia and gone off with Assia Wevill; now he was betraying Assia for a fling with Susan Alliston. The poem implies it was not his fault: his “numbed love life,” he writes, was being fought over by two crazy tattooists, each trying to mark him as her own; what could he do? What indeed? In the end, making good poetry out of the mess he had created was beyond him.
But what did that matter compared to the mess his behaviour had created for Sylvia? The real, heartbreaking poetry is in the long passage about her coming and going through the frozen streets to the public phone, calling again and again and never getting an answer.
Alvarez, then, finds little that brings to mind Shakespearean tragedy in the poem. But then Shakespeare’s characters were made up: to set out to create a successful work of art from the events Hughes describes would surely be an instance of even worse “conscience”; the poem’s jagged lines, its lurid, expressionist repetitions, its horrifying immediacy, suggest Hughes wrote “Last Letter” because he needed to, rather than because he thought he could make a good poem out of this impossible material.
Of course we don’t know, and surely never will, if Plath really made numerous trips to the phone booth down the road to call Hughes the night she killed herself, as the penultimate verse of “Last Letter” imagines. Nor if she really sent him a suicide note in the post on the morning of Friday, February 8 (three days after writing her final poem, “Edge”); “Last Letter” tells us he received it that very afternoon, rushed round at once, and “wept with relief when [she] opened the door.” In the course of their talk, the poem reveals, she burnt the letter in an ashtray, which he took as a sign for him to release her and “escape.” But there was to be no escape, as he found out on Monday morning on his return from 18 Rugby Street to his own flat; there he got out his papers and started to write, when the phone “jerked awake”:
Then a voice like a selected weapon
Or a measured injection,
Coolly delivered its four words
Deep into my ear: “Your wife is dead.”