Exclusive: Ted Hughes’s poem on the night Sylvia Plath died

The New Statesman publishes a previously unseen work by the late poet laureate.

The New Statesman publishes a previously unseen work by the late poet laureate.

In tomorrow's New Statesman, which has been guest-edited by Melvyn Bragg, we publish a previously unseen poem by Ted Hughes. "Last letter" is a poem that describes what happened during the three days leading up to the suicide of his first wife, the poet Sylvia Plath. Its first line is: "What happened that night? Your final night." -- and the poem ends with the moment Hughes is informed of his wife's death.

Hughes's best-known work is 1998's Birthday Letters, a collection of poems that detail his relationship with Plath. Though the published poems make reference to Plath's suicide, which occurred in February 1963, when she and Hughes were separated but still married, none of them addresses directly the circumstances of her death. This, then, would appear to be the "missing link" in the sequence.

The earliest draft of "Last letter" held in the British Library's Ted Hughes archive appears in a blue school-style exercise book, which is believed to date from the 1970s. The book contains drafts of several poems that appear in Birthday Letters. A more refined draft of the poem is found in a hardback notebook. After drafting poems by hand several times, Hughes would usually type out poems when they were near completion, adding notes in the margin where necessary.

Below are images from various drafts of the poem:

Add. 88918/1/6, f.1

The image above is of the first page of the earliest known draft of the poem, which went through many revisions before the final version appeared

2010+40ted poem 2

The image above is the first page of a later draft of the poem (date unknown)

Add. 88918/1/8, f.11

This image is from a draft of the poem contained in a hardback notebook. As is evident, Hughes would extensively rework phrases and add lines throughout the various stages of drafting. When a poem was finished, he would usually type it out, annotating with comments where necessary

In a letter from 1998 to his fellow poet Seamus Heaney, Hughes says that he first started to write simple verse "letters" to Sylvia Plath in the early 1970s. Hughes began writing them piecemeal; later he tried to do it in a more concerted way but found that he couldn't, so he went back to writing them occasionally. Some of the Birthday Letters poems appear in the 1995 New Selected Poems, but in correspondence with friends (also held by the British Library), he says he had found some of the other poems too personal to publish at that time.

Tonight Channel 4 News covered the story and recruited the actor Jonathan Pryce to read a section from the poem.

To read the poem in full, pick up a copy of Thursday's magazine.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Why do we refuse to accept that a Kardashian could also be a victim?

Something is wrong when violent and intrusive crimes are seen as quirks of a life lived in the public sphere.

By now, we’re used to the regular appearance of the Kardashians in the news cycle. This morning, two new stories have made headlines. First, Kim Kardashian West dropped a lawsuit against a publication that claimed she faked her own armed robbery, after the website published a retraction. Second, a man was cleared of stalking her younger sister Kendall Jenner outside her home (instead, he was convicted of trespassing and could face up to six months in jail).

Both these incidents – Kardashian West’s robbery and Jenner’s discovery of a stranger at her home – are intensely traumatic experiences, the kind that can leave victims with lifelong post-traumatic stress disorder.

When testifying against the accused, Jenner told the court, “I’ve never been so scared in my life.” Kardashian West, usually happy to share her emotions with her fans, has receded into silence – she has posted nothing on her social media channels, and has said nothing to the public since the robbery on 3 October.

But, institutionally, these incidents haven’t been treated as such. Instead, they’ve been seen as quirks of a life lived in the public sphere. Why?

One strand of public opinion has been quick to blame the Kardashians themselves for such incidents. The family have been accused of sharing too much of their lives, flaunting their wealth, revealing too many details of their whereabouts, and showcasing their extravagant possessions.

The tenants of modern fame are seen as the root cause of the actions of other irresponsible and/or malicious individuals. Put simply, the public, the media and the law are still struggling to understand fame in the 21st century, and how to respond to it.

As some of the biggest celebrities in the world, the Kardashians have been dehumanised – we’ve seen their pixelated faces so many times that it’s hard to envisage the vulnerable human behind it. Sadly, life for many people cannot be free of violation and humiliation – particularly those less financially and socially privileged than the Kardashians. But Kim and Kendall are real, breathing people. They still deserve protection.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.