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.

Show Hide image

Commons confidential: Boris's blond Brexit ambition

Boris Johnson adopting Brexit for his Tory leadership bid extended to the self-anointed premier-in-waiting holding out an olive branch in unusual directions.

Boris Johnson adopting Brexit for his Tory leadership bid extended to the self-anointed premier-in-waiting, supremely confident of referendum victory, holding out an olive branch in unusual directions. Bumping into Unite’s “Red Len” McCluskey, a favourite Tory bogeyman, Brother Boris pleaded with Comrade Len to accept: “I’m not anti-trade union, I’m a One-Nation Tory.” Comrade Len’s scepticism, rooted in Johnson having refused to meet trade unions in his eight years as London mayor and then, as a Tory MP, voting to shackle organised labour, resulted in the Downing Street aspirant agreeing to beer and sandwiches. “Give me a ring on 24 June to arrange our meeting,” was Johnson’s parting bark. I suspect any call depends on the result, Brother Boris.

David Cameron suffered a series of indignities during a bruising campaign, though perhaps none greater than in Henley, coincidentally Johnson’s old Oxfordshire stamping ground. My local snout muttered that a town hall-style gathering with the Prime Minister was moved to a smaller space when it was noted that even a busload of Remainers driven down from Oxford would fail to fill the venue that had been booked. Win or lose, the walls are closing in on Dave.

Ukip’s venomous Nigel Farage, the Leave campaign’s embarrassing uncle and self-designated victim, shopped himself playing the race card with the odious “Breaking Point” refugee poster, but was the Little Englander a hidden hand behind inflammatory newspaper coverage? A Man of Kent, flogging film of a boat supposedly used to smuggle migrants from outside the European Union across the Channel, informed reporters: “I must consult my legal adviser Nigel Farage on what to do.” Joking or not, and Farage isn’t legally qualified, the images were splashed as another anti-EU scare story across the front of the Brexit Sun.

Droopy Zac Goldsmith’s long sulk since he lost the London election with dishonour has a way to go to rival Ted Heath’s 30-year mope, but whispers now grow louder in parliament that he might walk away from politics in the summer. If he gets in touch, I’d be happy to report otherwise.

Momentum, Labour’s self-preening lefty movement, is both overhyped and unfairly run down. The North Tyneside cell loses friends and makes enemies. Declaring on Facebook that party MPs who support Brexit are “despicable and traitorous” was unwise above a mugshot of Dennis Skinner, if not John Mann, who was alongside Skinner. The glorious Beast of Bolsover is a darling of the Labour Party and parliament’s most principled member.

Jo Cox was as decent an MP as you could ever hope to encounter. RIP.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain