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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit