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Ted Hughes’ “Last Letter” to Sylvia Plath

By October 14, 2010

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A storm of speculation, gossip, blame and sorrow has whirled and echoed down the nearly 50 years since Sylvia Plath committed suicide, and for a long time her estranged husband Ted Hughes occupied the silent eye of that storm. Castigated by those who blamed her death on his failures in the marriage, berated for destroying her last journal, criticized for his choices in editing her posthumous publications—yet he said nothing publicly, refused to be drawn into the whirlwind, as her legend grew and spun out into controversy. Years after her death, he began to write his “letters” to her, poems that would not be published until 1998, the last year of his life, as Birthday Letters (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, )—a book that was hailed as his greatest work and greeted with the Forward Poetry Prize, the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, and two Whitbread prizes, for poetry and for book of the year. There are 88 poems in Birthday Letters, but Hughes wrote to a friend in 1995 that some of the poems were “too personal to publish.” Just last month, Hughes’ papers including letters and unpublished poems were acquired by the British Library. Among them was discovered his “Last Letter” to Sylvia, a poem recounting the story of her death, including her “Last Letter” to him, a suicide note that was mailed too early and prompted him to rush over to see her—but she went through with the suicide anyway, afterward. The poem ends with the news of her death; its last words are “Your wife is dead.”

from The New Statesman (UK):
Exclusive: Ted Hughes’s poem on the night Sylvia Plath died,” by Daniel Trilling
“Last Letter” was published in its entirety by The New Statesman—you have to get a copy of the magazine to read the whole poem, but this online blog posting includes images of several handwritten drafts.

from Channel 4 News (UK):
Ted Hughes: Last Letter
This television story about the rediscovered poem includes a reading by actor Jonathan Pryce.

from The Guardian (UK):
Ted Hughes’s final lines to Sylvia Plath bring closure to a tragic tale,” by Robert McCrum
Here’s a good perspective on how the publication of this poem fits into “the lyrical volcano that is the tale of Ted and Sylvia, one of the great love stories of the 20th century.” McCrum tells the saga with respect for all concerned, especially Hughes’ widow Carol, who pointed the New Statesman’s guest editor Melvin Bragg to the undiscovered poem. “Carol Ann Duffy, the poet laureate, says that the new poem is ‘a bit like looking into the sun as it’s dying. It seems to touch a deeper, darker place than any poem he’s ever written.’... Time will tell if Sylvia Plath’s spirit has finally been laid to rest.”

More on Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes:
Our biographical profile of Plath, with links to buy her books
Thinking About Sylvia Plath as the Winter Darkness Comes On (November 2012)
Shrines to Ted and Sylvia (September 2010)
Sylvia Plath Speaks in Her Own Voice (April 2010)
A Star Chart for Sylvia Plath’s Birthday (November 2008)
The Poet’s Name Inscribed on a Hidden Slab (August 2003)


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