Ted Hughes’s ‘Last Letter’

Warren J. Plath/Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College
Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath on their honeymoon, Paris, 1956

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, 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 longtime 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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.