A minotaur in the maze

Ted Hughes's "Last letter" leaves the mystery unsolved.

This is a poem that became news and has brought news. "Final lines bring closure", said one headline, while we readers, from people who knew Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath through to college kids, are reading the poem as if we're police: "So, have I got this right, Mr Hughes? You are standing by your statement that this is what you were doing on the night that your wife passed away?"

“Last letter" (though it won't be the last word, to be sure) comes to us through years of briefing and fabling. Involuntarily, we may find ourselves playing out this poem as the Hughes and Plath of whichever biography we've read, or even as Daniel Craig and Gwyneth Paltrow. Is it Eng lit's celeb schlock, the awful detail pulped into goss and then extruded in end-of-year exams?

My first reading of the poem was entangled with all this - I found myself doing more of the cop thing: "And who precisely are the ladies to whom you refer as Susan and Helen? On previous occasions, you have mentioned an Assia Wevill. In this statement, she appears to play no part. How do you account for this, Mr Hughes?" My way to get past this was to fuss over some of the puzzles - detective work of another kind, perhaps: "She gassed her ferocious kupo . . ." The word "German", always explosive in the Hughes-Plath world, is only eight lines away. That must be "kapo", surely, Hughes's pen not closing the top of the "u"? There's "My dellarobbia Susan". Some kind of nickname? Maybe she collected Della Robbia china, or wore lush, gaudy dresses?

Then to a letter - the letter within this "Last letter", which would have been the final letter within Birthday Letters. We start with the "last sight" of Plath reading what was to be the last letter between them. I tell myself to drop the Hughes-Plath bit, and do he-she instead. That way, I might start to read it as a poem, something that has borrowed its ways of telling from other literature. He has dashed through the snow because he has received this letter from her, earlier than she had intended. And now, she is burning it. (Curious. He must have given it back to her.) If he had got there later, she would have disappeared - and whatever it says in the letter she would have done would have administered to him "electric shock treatment" - but an ECT that would have "needed some time". This is the revealing-concealing hand of poetry, revealing that there is a letter but not letting us look over his shoulder to read it. And we never will, because it's burnt.

Remembering that this "Last letter" is written from within the Hughes-Plath saga, I sense that Hughes is replaying how he burned Plath's journals. Is he saying, despairingly (and, for a writer, ironically), "Can't you see, you lot, it's not what's in the letter (and the journals) that matters - what counts is what Sylvia and I did to each other"? He can't even remember what she said that let him "release" her to enable him to "leave" her. Or perhaps he can remember but doesn't want to tell us.

This is the mess an unexpected death leaves us in - the moment where I could have done otherwise. He tells it as a cause-and-effect story: you said something that caused me to "release" you, which left you to kill yourself. A bit mechanistic?

A couple of times in the poem, I'm reminded of Thomas Hardy. In Tess of the d'Urbervilles, doesn't the tragedy turn on the fate of a letter? Later, Hughes describes himself making the imaginative space of the poem itself. "What happened that night . . . Is as unknown as if it never happened" and then he creates in front of us a haunting, which seems to me to be itself haunted by Hardy's "Poems of 1912-13", in which he was in turn haunted by the loss of his wife. Hughes sees her walking alone in the dirty snow, "In your long black coat,/With your plait coiled up at the back of your hair". Hardy's look back ("Let me view you, then . . .") is of a woman, alone, in her "air-blue gown", and elsewhere his gaze lights on her as "fair-eyed and white-shouldered, broad-browed and brown-tressed". It's one of literature's tales: there's no one so erotic as the one you lost and nothing as erotic as the lost one's body parts.

The middle part of "Last letter" feels like Hughes's shock moment: he is, as it were, telling his dead wife that after he left her, he went to his and her wedding bed with Susan (passing on the way Helen, the one who gassed herself with her dog), that wedding bed being the one from which Susan would be taken to die three years later. There seems to be a lot of death and sex here, which Hughes laces with "fury" and a Lawrentian "flame". As with D H Lawrence, this is where the Germans make an appearance, though here it is in the Alsatian's "infinite . . . hatred", rather than in the infinite desire of Lawrence's wife, Frieda von Richthofen.

That he was with Susan in the flat with the wedding bed, and not in his room in a different flat, meant that if she had tried to ring him, he wouldn't have been there to receive the call: "Did the phone ring there in my empty room . . . ?" He haunts himself and us with the sound of an unanswered phone - which may or may not have rung. What we know for certain from that phone is: "'Your wife is dead.'" I'm reminded of the journalist Charles Wheeler's account of how, as a young journalist in Germany in May 1945, he leapt up on a truck and announced to a crowd: "Your Führer is dead!" There is no accounting for how poems link in our minds to places and people beyond the poem's ken.

On the other hand, poems often demand of us to do precisely that. In the midst of the poem sits the Minotaur. Surely this is Hughes casting himself as Picasso's Minotaur, priapic and destructive. Unlikely. Elsewhere in Birthday Letters, this raging beast stuck in the labyrinth seems to be Otto Plath's daughter, Sylvia, smashing up Hughes's heirlooms, stuck in a self-perpetuating, father-worshipping, atrocity-hunted, genetically German body.

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: "flame in a fuse", "Susan. Solitaire", "Jerked awake, in a jabbering alarm". 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.

I think we write poems to see what will happen next. It feels odd that Hughes, who found himself more embroiled than many of us in the what-happens-after-poets-write-poems, should have written a poem to this very subject, yet chose not to publish it, and isn't alive to hear us talking about it. Last letter? No chance. Hundreds have already been written. But you knew that would happen, didn't you, Ted? That's why you didn't burn it.

Michael Rosen is a former children's laureate. His "Selected Poems" is published by Penguin (£8.99)

This article first appeared in Who owns Britain?

2010-10-18