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.

Photo: The Trustees of the Natural History Museum
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As a vegetarian, I’m relaxed about Britain’s cannibals

British cave dwellers apparently ate their dead relatives. They were consistent, at least. 

“Prehistoric Britons ate their dead,” exclaimed the Telegraph in a recent article, which went on to describe the “deeply sinister” and “grisly” discovery that British cave dwellers ate their deceased relatives.

Scientists from the Natural History Museum and University College London had drawn this conclusion after noticing human bones that had been filleted, chewed and ultimately broken to extract the bone marrow.

Find that icky? Well, yes, I do too. That’s why I don’t eat meat, and haven’t since I was four. But what I find stranger than ancient cannibalism is the attitude of carnivores today. 

In the 21st century, the humble plant-eater can note two contradictory trends – braggadocious carnivores, and a complete ignorance about where the nation gets its meat.

Take the self-proclaimed carnivores first. Our culture casually assumes there’s something macho about meat. According to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, most languages relate meat-eating to the male gender.

"To the strong, traditional, macho, bicep-flexing, all-American male, red meat is a strong, traditional, macho, bicep-flexing, all-American food," the authors wrote. "Soy is not.” This attitude has been taken to extremes by Tokyo’s Macho restaurant where all the meat-grilling chefs are bare-chested beefcakes. 

Given that meat eaters are supposedly macho hunter-gatherers, then, it’s strange that the second trend is that meat eaters are increasingly distant from the animals they eat. Victorian novels are packed with red-cheeked women wringing chickens’ necks, but in fact the rise of chicken as a popular meat in the UK went hand-in-hand with the rise of factory farming. Consumption of meat overall accelerated in the second half of the 20th century, as it became mass-produced – and the process of killing animals was hidden away in the supply chain. 

I noticed this first-hand when I worked in a sandwich shop. “I’ll have all the meat,” a customer would say proudly. Despite my vegetarianism, I could then quite happily use the tongs to pick up a dozen, odourless pink shapes on the counter, with their non-animalistic names. There was nothing to suggest this was a dead animal at all. The customer could walk away feeling more macho with every bite, without ever having looked directly at an animal and decided to kill it. 

Of course, when it comes to cannibalism, it’s impossible to stay that detached. We can’t read a description of human bones being nibbled without feeling it in our bones too. This attitude sometimes extends to animals considered intelligent – I’ve seen an enthusiastic carnivore look askance at a menu serving dolphin – or cute (see the continued outrage about dog meat). And this unease lends itself to a question most would rather avoid: where do you draw the line? At what level of intelligence or consciousness does an animal become sacred? When does killing an animal for meat become murder?

Our ancestors, apparently, thought about it and came to the conclusion: everything’s on the table. So while I don’t like factory farming, or hypocritical carnivores, I’m fairly relaxed about the concept of being descended from cannibals. At least they were consistent in their carnivorous tastes. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.