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.

Annabelle Breakey
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Rosé is as macho as claret - real men should drink it with pride

Pink is nothing but a state of mind. 

The assumption that pink has a feminine hue, that women naturally love its soft, skin-coloured permutations while men turn away in distaste, is both recent and untrue: it is merely a matter of fashion. Roman senators wore purple because the dye, from sea snails, was expensive; Louis XIV’s shoes had scarlet heels.

The notion that pink wine is for girls has everything to do with modern mores and nothing to do with gender, colour or drink. After all, if we ladies are now permitted to apply our feeble muscles to the lifting of a pint, should a gentleman hankering after a cool glass of wine be limited to white, lest outdated aspersions be cast on his masculinity?

The idea of gendered tastes
is based on the notion that men are strong, dark and decisive, while women are pallid and foolish and have a fondness for sweets. This is only marginally sillier than the idea that a given colour has a gender.

Rosé wine, sashaying across the palette from pale salmon to deep carmine, is frequently beautiful and sometimes delicious. I love the herbaceous rosés of Provence, made mainly from Grenache, Cinsault and Mourvèdre, and as gentle in colour as their native landscape is brash. I usually avoid darker rosés – dyed by longer contact with red grape skins – as too forceful. Instead, I’ll drink Cinsault-based Lebanese wine or tawny Australian by Spinifex, in the Barossa Valley.

I have tempered the feel-good sensation of sun salutations on a Moroccan yoga retreat with a local wine the colour of sunset; and soothed the pain of regular working hours, back when I still laced myself into that particular corset, with gallons of Lombardian Cà dei Frati.

Last week, I ate John Dory and celeriac purée with Pinot Noir from Albourne Estate in Sussex, a delicately savoury wine called white but glowing a lovely pink-orange.

Why not call it rosé, I asked Albourne’s owner, Alison Nightingale. Because, she said, the grapes are removed very promptly from the skins, so the colour varies according to the vintage – the 2015, which I tried, is pinker than most. Also, “We’re funny about rosé in this country: we only drink it in summer and only want the current vintage. So, as a small vineyard, we’d have to have it ready by May and all sold by August, or we’d be stuck with it.” She didn’t add that the marketing of this wine is generally limited to the 51 per cent of the population that has cerise balloons in place of brain cells, but she could have.

It’s odd to drink according to the season, particularly in Britain; still, I like the idea of a wine whose colour changes to reflect the year’s weather. The oddity is that long ago, before the technological knowledge to keep the juice of red grapes clear of the skins, most good wines would have been pink. That is why red Bordeaux is known as claret: clairet meant “clear” or “pale”, until the wines and the English adjective darkened to maroon.

Meanings change just as styles do, and surely the time has come for rosé to cast off antiquated associations. Men should indulge the sensuality and, yes, vulnerability signalled by a wine the colour of skin. As for women, I leave them with the wonderfully barbed advice of Kay Thompson’s fashion magazine editor in Funny Face, a film that also hides a great deal behind frivolous colour and seeming transparency: “Now I wouldn’t presume to tell a woman what a woman ought to think, but tell her – if she’s gotta think, think pink!” l

Next week: John Burnside on nature


Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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