Responses to Ted Hughes's "Last letter"

Michael Rosen and a close friend of Sylvia Plath write to the NS.

This week's magazine features two intriguing responses to our publication of a previously unseen poem by Ted Hughes. First of all, the poet Michael Rosen has written a sensitive, thoughtful analysis of "Last letter", Hughes's only poem to deal directly with the suicide of his first wife, Sylvia Plath. You'll have to pick up the magazine to read the full thing, but here's an excerpt:

I suppose nothing concentrates the mind on questions of human agency more than being around suicide. Hughes finds explanations in mechanistics, Hardyesque fate and deterministic mythoi. I sense that he isn't completely convinced by this. From the first line onwards - "What happened that night? Your final night." - the poem is packed with repetitions of words. Within many of the lines and between pairs of lines, sounds repeat too [...] On one level this is the cohesion of poetry. On another, it feels like a special pleading: if I say something twice, you will be more convinced.

The other response comes from Elizabeth Sigmund, who knew the couple in the early 1960s, and became a close friend and confidante of Plath in the months leading up to her death. Below is her letter to the magazine, reproduced in full:

I got to know Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath after they moved to Devon in 1962. So much joy in getting close to such exceptional minds - until the terrible break, until the anguish and chaos and desperate end. Ted's poem betrays guilt, confusion and the howling of a trapped animal.

My escape
Had become a hunted thing
Sleepless, hopeless, all its dreams exhausted
Only wanting to be recaptured...

He had such faith in dreams, that was where he searched for answers and prophecies, and with Sylvia's death she had gone beyond Ted's comprehension.

From no world,
Beyond actuality, feeling, or name.

Attempting to escape repeated agonising events, Ted searched for forgetfulness in other complex relationships, each one involving yet further chaos and pain.

One could only stand by and watch the result of this tragedy. Death after death, young and old, male and female. It has been beyond tears, beyond words, although words are all that are left to us to remember that they were real, living beings. And what words.

Elizabeth Sigmund
Callington, Cornwall

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood