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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Why is BBC Radio Cumbria talking about 1974?

Tuesday, and yet another shout-out to listeners who might remember the making of the 1974 film of Swallows and Amazons.

“I feel I’ve got to mention this because we don’t often get the chance,” trembles the traffic reporter on Radio Cumbria, “but the train from Carlisle to Newcastle is early. Four minutes early!” The 12 July breakfast show highlights also include news of homes “powered by cheese” (generating biogas from Cumbrian creamery residues) and yet another shout-out to listeners who might remember the making of the 1974 film of Swallows and Amazons – in advance of the Keswick premiere of a new adaptation of the story, about children fancying themselves buccaneers on the high seas (ie, Coniston Water) and who view adults as merely actors in a made-up world, creatures to be approached with caution and frowning respect, as one might a local chieftain on a South Sea island.

The station’s appeal for tales of the 1974 filming has been going on successfully for a while. They’ve even heard from the granddaughter of the owner of Captain Flint’s parrot. And on Radio Cumbria’s live feed last week, mention was made – as though it were breaking news – of an earlier TV adaptation that Arthur Ransome himself thought a “ghastly mess” . . . Though apparently, at the time, he was living an exhaustingly spartan existence overlooking the Rusland Valley with “his wife, Evgenia, the former secretary to Leon Trotsky” (the ultimate caveat). No doubt all this will run and run, the Lake District being such a strong part of our national understanding of the ideal beauty of our country. Ransome’s book was suffused with a nostalgia for the Lakes even at the moment it was published.

I’ve always thought that the most memorable thing about the movie was the slight fuzziness of the actual Seventies film stock – especially when the boats on the water are shot at a distance. That dreamy indistinctness . . . it’s not just touching, it’s profound. It looks like memory. It truly looks like the feeling of journeying back in thought. How many films can claim that? Little wonder Radio Cumbria is so enjoying its appeal. “Though nothing can bring back the hour/Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;” Wordsworth wrote, “We will grieve not, rather find/Strength in what ­remains behind”.

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 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt