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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Turkey's darkest night: can democracy survive the failed coup?

President Erdogan has hailed the foiling of the coup as a triumph for democracy, but some fear it will serve as a cover to crack down hard on his critics.

It was 3.30am and the Turkish leadership was insisting that everything was under control. It didn’t feel like it. I was backed into the corner of a hotel room in Istanbul, trying to keep away from the windows as the building shook from sonic booms made by fighter jets tearing over the city’s rooftops. Three hundred miles away in the capital city, Ankara, plotters seeking to overthrow the government had seized tanks and jets and were bombing parliament. Civilians were being mown down in the streets. The presenter on CNN Türk was narrating with admirable calm the takeover of her own station’s building.

Each new update seemed to bounce off my brain before rebounding and coming back to hit with full force. Had President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he of such deliberate machismo, really just addressed the nation by FaceTime, on an iPhone held aloft by a TV anchor? Was my mind playing tricks when I saw helicopters strafe terrified civilians on a three-lane highway in Ankara? The significance of those dark 12 hours is still sinking in.

The first sign that something was up came with reports that the army had closed the two bridges in Istanbul that span the Bosphorus strait. Fighter jets were in the skies over Ankara. The most likely explanation seemed some kind of counterterror operation. It was just 24 hours after a lorry ploughed through a crowd in Nice and only two weeks since the suspected Isis bombing of Atatürk Airport. Turkey had been on high alert, with bag checks and armed guards at every Metro station, but there was almost a sense of resignation to terror threats.

It seemed inconceivable, though, that Turkey could face another coup d’état. The Turkish military last pressured a government from power in 1997. Knowing that his stance as the most openly religious leader in the history of the Turkish republic was at odds with the generals who saw themselves as the guardians of the secular state, Erdogan had moved to clip their wings. He launched waves of purges of the top brass after they tried unsuccessfully in 2007 to halt Abdullah Gül, a co-founder with Erdogan of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), from becoming president.

It wasn’t until Prime Minister Binali Yildirim spoke by phone to a television station and confirmed that an attempted putsch was under way – and the military declared martial law – that it began to seem real. I rushed down to the street, where people who had been enjoying a Friday night out in the city began pouring out of bars and restaurants. They queued at cashpoints and hailed taxis home.

Most of those I met were subdued and nervous. Erdogan has many critics. They accuse him of abusing electoral landslides to rule by tyranny of the majority. But in a sign of just how far Turkey has come in recent decades, I found not one person who was jubilant at the prospect of him being toppled by force. “Whether you like him or not, he was democratically elected,” said Ahmet, a waiter smoking outside his empty café.

We now know that a relatively small, badly organised group was behind the plot, but for some time the scale of the putsch was unclear. The soldiers ordered into Taksim Square in Istanbul were soon outnumbered when thousands responded to a call from Erdogan to take to the streets. But I feared Turkey was about to plunge into civil war.

There was terrible loss of life, with at least 290 dead and 1,400 wounded. Many of those who died were civilians who showed daredevil courage, lying down in the path of tanks or wrestling with soldiers for their weapons. Yet the insurrection would be almost completely put down by morning. If you had gone to bed at 10pm and woken up at 7am you might have wondered why the streets were so quiet.

Shortly after dawn, the soldiers on the bridges over the Bosphorus surrendered. I found a taxi driver willing to take me most of the way to the first of the two, then walked the last stretch.

At the far end were the plotters’ abandoned tanks, now being clambered over by men waving flags and chanting the president’s name. About half a dozen motorbikes whizzed up and down carrying pairs of men with white beards and skullcaps, like a crew of Islamist Hells Angels. Trails of crimson blood ran along the tarmac. I later saw images that appeared to show that a captured soldier had been beheaded by the angry crowds.

Even after the confrontation was over, the atmosphere in the city still had a nasty edge, especially for foreigners. Pro-government press continually accuse Western powers and their citizens of orchestrating terror attacks and plots. Spitting with fury, eyes popping, one man shouted at me from the top of a tank: “Tell the West to stop playing games in our country.” Later in the day I was hounded out of the grounds of a hospital by a group of men, furious to learn that not only was I a reporter, I was also English.

The climate of retribution in the aftermath of the failed coup could threaten Turkey’s minorities. In four towns in the south-east, offices of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) were attacked, even though the party had come out against the coup. There were reports of attacks on Syrian-owned properties in Ankara. In these turbulent times, an aggressive nationalism laced with intolerance and xenophobia is sometimes finding outlets.

Erdogan has hailed the foiling of the coup as a triumph for democracy. His opponents fear that he will use the failed plot as cover to crack down hard on his critics and push on with divisive plans to concentrate more powers in the hands of the presidency. They argue that the speed with which thousands in the military, police and legal system have been accused raises concern about due process.

It is far from clear how things will play out. But with war raging against Kurdish militants in the south-east, growing unhappiness at the presence of 2.7 million Syrian refugees, and suicide bombings at a rate of almost one a month, Turkey is highly flammable. It feels like the beginning of a deeply uncertain chapter in this country’s history. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt