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.

Still from Jack Reacher: Never Go Back
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Jack Reacher’s constant prowess kills the suspense – even James Bond seems vulnerable sometimes

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is the title of the latest film. It’s also a transparent piece of misdirection.

Since the success in 2012 of Jack Reacher, the first film to be adapted from the best-selling novels about a brutal but cerebral one-time military cop, there has been an intriguing addition to the world of Reacher’s creator, Lee Child.

In Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of “Make Me”, Andy Martin meticulously documents the author’s working life as he writes the latest Reacher novel. Reviewing Martin’s study in the New Statesman, Leo Robson described “the resulting ‘meta-book’” as “an orgy of postmodern excess, irony, relativism, revisionism, etc, being a fanatical and fetishistic account of its subject’s smallest habits.”

The reader learns every detail, from Child’s preferred font to the number of coffees he drinks in a day to the time he spends reading the New Yorker. Hopes were raised temporarily that the inevitable second Jack Reacher movie might jump the points and become a Pirandello-esque account of Childs himself, perhaps with Tom Cruise, who played Reacher first time around, now inhabiting the roles of both author and character.

But that would be a risk. And sequels to $218m hits don’t take risks. They channel all their efforts and energies into duplication: this is Hollywood as multi-million-dollar Xerox machine.

Even the title of the latest film – Jack Reacher: Never Go Back – is a transparent piece of misdirection. This movie is all about going back to what we know. And stripping back.

Reacher’s life and manner are ascetic, and he seems to have had a hand in casting the new film. Gone are the stars and familiar faces from the first movie. Now it’s just Cruise and a bunch of anonymous and unmemorable jobbing actors; no one as charismatic this time as Rosamund Pike or Werner Herzog or David Oyelowo (who all appeared in the first film), no one likely to distract from Cruise’s taut face and immovable hair and those knowing eyes which seem to know nothing worth knowing.

From the opening scene, we are in familiar, reassuring hands. Reacher (Cruise again) is being arrested in a diner. As the cuffs are slapped on him, he makes a prediction. Two things will happen, he says, in the next 90 seconds: the telephone will ring, and then the cuffs will be on the arresting officer.

The effect on the audience is similar to a magic trick in which the conjuror promises to pull off some improbable feat and we wait on tenterhooks to see how it will be achieved. It’s a thrill but it is one of a peculiarly atomised sort – it can’t be used again.

Try telling that to the filmmakers. Reassurance and confidence are the main tools in Reacher’s arsenal, but the director Edward Zwick (who worked with Cruise on the lumbering historical drama The Last Samurai) doesn’t seem to have spotted that endless reiterations of a character’s prowess can be fatal to suspense.

At least James Bond seems vulnerable or jeopardised at times. Cruise as Reacher can do anything, from dispatching single-handedly an army of assassins to calculating correctly a woman’s dress size based on a cursory glance (“Good eye”). Though it’s interesting to note that he can’t do humour. He tries but his efforts at flippant one-liners (“Never underestimate the charm of a seedy motel”) are never quite up to snuff, whatever his own half-smile might suggest.

Let’s blame the screenwriters (Zwick, Richard Wenk, Marshall Herskovitz), who also consider it acceptable to have one character tell Reacher: “You’re like something feral.” Firstly, he’s not. Discipline defines him. Secondly: could you be any vaguer?

The point is that nothing scares him. But there’s a thin line between fearlessness and boredom, and Cruise isn’t always on the right side of it. When Reacher springs from jail, the wrongly imprisoned Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders) asks him: “Why do I feel like you’re enjoying this?” The real question is: how could she tell?

A small amount of freshness is provided in the new film by the introduction of a teenage girl (Danika Yarosh) who may or may not be Reacher’s daughter, and whom he goes all-out to protect on the off-chance. Really she exists to give the bland psychopathic villain more leverage over him (“I’ve found a way to hurt you like you’ve never been hurt before!”). You can never have too many women in peril, am I right?

From the moment the girl is introduced we know what the film is leading up to: some display of emotion, however meagre, from Reacher, to atone for all the violence. Sure enough, the climax of the movie is a hug. Small beer, perhaps. But it’s the equivalent of a gushing declaration of love and commitment from anyone else.

A lot of people have had to suffer and die to make that hug possible and there has been a lot of gratuitous head trauma along the way. A man has even been beaten to death with a telephone receiver, which is quite a shock – I mean, who has a landline these days? At least that hug has defrosted a small chamber of Reacher’s icy heart, as well as ticking the box marked “redemption”. Until next time.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is on release from 20 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.