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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Emma Rice's exit from Shakespeare's Globe feels a bit Brexity

The criticism of the artistic director's experimental style ignores the fact that Shakeapeare was also a pioneering populist.

Seen from afar from my perch in Edinburgh, the decision by London’s famous Globe theatre to part ways with its artistic director, Emma Rice, is disappointing. It feels a bit Brexity: a pained cry from the past, “We want our Shakespearean canon back!” Rice will leave her post in 2018, after being criticised by the board for her use of microphones, neon, and light rigging as part of her sets in the replica Elizabethan theatre.

But it’s no defence of the Renaissance repertoire to mollycoddle it like this. Turning the Globe into some sort of tourist attraction is the surest way to kill it. Shakespeare was a popular playwright in the 16th century, an innovator of his time and his work remains a beacon for theatrical cultures the world over. His writing came out of a London that was international, expanding, full of new people arriving in the British capital, overflowing with debate and conflict. The original Globe was built to house big, rambunctious populist audiences, the very audiences Emma Rice, through productions such as her well-reviewed Midsummer’s Night Dream — described by The Stage as “hot-blooded and hot-bodied” — was recently attracting.

So Shakespeare doesn’t need defending but what about the architects of the original Globe? The Elizabethan carpenter-turned-actor James Burbage who with the help of the polymath Dr John Dee drafted the plans for the original structure. Surely Burbage intended the theatre to be played with, and in? Theatre makers are always engaged in a dance with architecture. “What can I do with this space?” “What can I make within these particular limitations?” One reason the Elizabethan repertoire travels so well across time and geography is that the Globe’s very architecture demanded playwrights who produced robust, tough plays. It’s quite absurd to suggest that their work can’t survive the aesthetics and technologies of contemporary dramaturgy. The Globe’s original architect would be thrilled to find directors and designers continuing to engage in that dance with form some 400 years later.

While it’s always exciting to go back to basics for some productions, there has to be room for innovation and play. Emma Rice was using her stage to play with gender, technology, ethnicity and popular form. So was Shakespeare. In 1592 Shakespeare’s contemporary, John Lyly, wrote: “If what we present is all mingle mangle, the fault must be excused for the whole world has gone hodge podge.” The world is changing — what we thought we knew yesterday about politics, economics and culture is turned upside down. Theatre has to keep up. It has to lead, even. There must be no going back.

David Greig is a Scottish playwright and the artistic director of Edinburgh's Lyceum Theatre.