Ted Hughes's "Last letter": the response

A month on from our publication of Ted Hughes's lost poem, and the critics are divided.

In an article in this month's New York Review of Books, the poet and academic Mark Ford has written about the recent publication in the New Statesman of Ted Hughes's previously unpublished poem "Last letter", which describes Hughes's movements and thoughts in the three days leading up to the suicide of his first wife, Sylvia Plath.

Ford suggests in the piece that the emotional power of the poem is "closer to that of an uncontrolled diary entry than of a speech by King Lear or Macbeth." He gives a comprehensive overview of the literary excitement and debate caused since the poem appeared in the New Statesman in early October, looking in particular at Daniel Huws' arguments that the events of those three days as described by Hughes in "Last letter" are factually inaccurate. Ford seems to accept that Huws is correct on several of these points - namely that Hughes probably didn't really sleep in his and Plath's "wedding bed" with Susan Alliston as asserted in the poem - but points out that "if the poem does indeed take "liberties" with the truth, these liberties seemed designed to intensify ... Hughes's coruscating sense of his own guilt." Michael Rosen, however, writing in the New Statesman, points out that there is something slightly suspect in Hughes's continual use of repetition and alliteration in the poem. As Rosen puts it, "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."

In the NYRB article, Ford also refers to Al Avarez's article in the Guardian, published in the wake of the poem's appearence, in which the critic and friend of Hughes judged that "the poem is a confession: he is a guy in the witness box pleading guilty. It's very strong stuff, but it ain't finished." Ford concludes his piece in a similar spirit, suggesting that the real value of "Last letter" comes from the portrait it gives of the poet's visceral emotion rather than its literary merit: "Hughes wrote "Last letter" because he needed to, rather than because he thought he could make a good poem out of this impossible material."

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

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 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue