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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Meet Richard Murphy, “the man behind Corbynomics”

The accountant and tax justice campaigner explains how his ideas ended up in Jeremy Corbyn's economics plan.

Which economist made his name blogging about the global financial crisis and got sucked into politics in 2015? Yanis Varoufakis is one correct answer. Richard Murphy may be another. The “man behind Corbynomics”, as the 57-year-old accountant from Norfolk has been dubbed, chuckles at the comparison with Greece’s former finance minister. “No one has suggested I’m the UK’s Varoufakis,” he says, “but the thought has occurred to me.”

Murphy’s sudden rise to prominence occurred early in August after it was reported that Jeremy Corbyn’s economic plan relied heavily on his writings. The two men have known each other for about ten years after meeting through the Left Economics Advisory Panel. “If you drew a Venn diagram of my economic ideas and those of Jeremy Corbyn you’d get a large overlap,” Murphy says.

His world-view was shaped by a career in finance. He trained as an accountant with KPMG and established his own practice in his mid-twenties. Murphy says his work there and in business – among other things, he helped manufacture the Trivial Pursuit board in Europe – gave him an insight into the inequities of the global tax system, which favours large corporations and the rich.

After selling his firm in 2000, he considered becoming an academic, and then focused on new economic ideas. He starting blogging nearly a decade ago and has written roughly 12,000 posts, mostly about tax and monetary policy. (His forthcoming book is called The Joy of Tax, which, though unlikely to repeat the success of Alex Comfort’s 1972 illustrated sex manual, nevertheless shows a sense of humour. “The book is about the second most exciting three-letter word that ends in ‘x’,” Murphy says.)

Even though he and Corbyn are acquaintances rather than close friends, Murphy was pleased to see the veteran socialist enter the Labour leadership campaign. “There’s a clear desire from a great many people to know there’s an alternative to the system we have got. No one allowed them to articulate that feeling until Jeremy came along.”

Murphy did not approach the Corbyn team but, “When you create ideas, you want people to use them,” he says.

Some of the main pillars of Corbynomics relate to tax. Murphy wants higher taxes for the wealthy and large companies, and a big clampdown on tax evasion, which he says could bring in £20bn. The most talked-about policy is the so-called people’s quantitative easing, which Murphy first wrote about in 2010, calling it green QE.

Under conventional QE, a central bank uses newly printed money to buy government bonds from investors such as banks and pension funds, increasing the amount of cash in the financial system. Critics say the biggest beneficiaries of this policy in the UK have been the banks and high-net-worth individuals.

With people’s QE, the Bank of England would print money, in effect, to allow the government to build houses, schools and hospitals, thus stimulating the economy.

Like Varoufakis, Murphy is not short on confidence. “I believe that people’s QE will become the next big tool used by governments around the world,” he says. 

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism