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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From Victoria Wood to Prince: how radio handles celebrity deaths in 2016

You have to listen to Front Row, and then Today, and see how they are covering it, what’s left to do, a ­different angle...”

“So I got a call at 6pm saying, ‘You’ll never guess who now . . .’” Fiona Couper, editor of the obituary programme Last Word (Fridays, 4pm), tells me about what happened just as she got home on Thursday, having left the show ready for the following afternoon’s broadcast. Naturally, they’d gone big on Victoria Wood, but the sudden news of Prince’s demise sent her scurrying back in to work. “Then you have to listen to Front Row, and then Today, and see how they are covering it, what’s left to do, a ­different angle...”

Fortuitously, Last Word’s presenter, Matthew Bannister, had been among a small audience invited to see Prince at the BBC Radio Theatre in 1993.

We heard archive of the singer walking on to the stage that night and saying tenderly to the crowd: “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you,” and then playing so rambunctiously, while doubtless wearing a cheerful little hat (he did often make everybody else look like the Traveling Wilburys), that the whole event “interrupted Radio 3’s broadcast next door”. News hadn’t yet filtered through of the reality of his life aged 57: that his hips were killing him, that he was frequently vomitous with stage fright (I also have it on good authority, btw, that he loved Coronation Street). Instead, mention was made of how prolific he was: all the rumoured ­unperformed songs, thousands of them falling off him like seeds, like Schubert, a whole ocean of stuff.

A little later in the same programme, the item on Victoria Wood was as memorable, simply offering close analysis of the various key changes in her song “Let’s Do It” and pointing out the ways in which Wood’s influences as a songwriter were as much jazz as music hall. Both obits – by accident as much as design – underlined forcefully just how awed and attracted we are as human beings to those who can put lyrics and a tune together and play. The ne plus ultra of art.

It’s quite a programme to be working on right now, I suggest to Couper: that strange sensation of watching an odometer moving jerkily. She sighs. “We’re just about holding on,” she nods. “That’s how we feel most weeks at the moment.” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism