Ted Hughes poem 'inspired by row with Sylvia Plath shortly before she died'

Biography says poem about night poet’s first wife killed herself drew on row the couple had about her leaving him

The poem written by Ted Hughes about the night his first wife, the poet Sylvia Plath, died was inspired by a row the couple had about her leaving the country, according to a biography. The poem, entitled Last Letter, was unearthed by Melvyn Bragg for the first time in 2010 and describes what happened during the three days leading up to Plath’s suicide in February 1963.

Last Letter begins with the line: “What happened that night? Your final night?” and ends with the moment Hughes is informed of Plath’s death: “Then a voice like a selected weapon or a measured injection, coolly delivered its four words deep into my ear: ‘Your wife is dead.’”

According to a biography of Hughes by Sir Jonathan Bate, provost of Worcester College, Oxford, who had “full access, unlike earlier biographers” to the poet’s archives in the US, as well as to material held by the British Library, the poem was inspired by an argument Hughes and Plath had on the weekend of her suicide.

As reported by the Sunday Times, Bate writes that on the Friday morning of that weekend, Plath sent an “enigmatic parting letter” to Hughes announcing that she planned to leave the country and never see him again.

Sylvia Plath
Jonathan Bate says Plath sent an ‘enigmatic parting letter’ to Hughes saying she planned to leave the country and never see him again. Photograph: AP

She had assumed that the letter would not reach her estranged husband until Saturday but owing to a speedy second post it arrived that afternoon. With the letter in hand, an anxious Hughes rushed to Plath’s home in Primrose Hill, north London, where an argument ensued. Plath reportedly grabbed the letter from Hughes and burned it.

“This was their final face-to-face which Ted turned into Last Letter,” Bate said. “This explains that poem.”

Bate also said that on the following day, Saturday, Plath rang Hughes only to find his lover, Susan Alliston, answering the phone. When Alliston passed the receiver to Hughes, he reportedly told Plath to “take it easy, Sylvie” – as is documented in a previously unseen diary belonging to Alliston.

Bate writes that Hughes was actually in bed with Alliston on the night of Plath’s death on Sunday evening. The poet had taken his lover to the Bloomsbury flat where he and Plath first made love seven years earlier and where they also spent their wedding night. On Monday, he found out about his wife’s death.

That incident and Hughes’s subsequent feelings of guilt are said to have been central to the rest of his life. “However hard he attempted to get away from it, he never could,” Bate writes.

The biographer spoke for the first time to several women with whom Hughes had relationships, including his first serious girlfriend, Shirley, whom the poet met at Cambridge. The book also contains information about Hughes’s relationship with Assia Wevill, who killed herself in 1969, leaving a note that stated the couple could not live together “because of the memory of Sylvia”.

Five years after Plath’s death, it is said that Hughes had become embroiled in a love tangle between Wevill, a trainee nurse named Carol Orchard, whom he later married, and another woman named Brenda Hedden.

Hughes is said to have called the women A, B, and C. In a previously unseen journal, he wrote: “3 beautiful women – all in love, and a separate life of joy visible with each, all possessed but own soul lost.” In a separate poem, he added: “Which bed? Which bride? Which breast’s comfort.”

“In other words, Ted could not decide,” Bate said.

Bate was unable to continue his planned “literary life” of Hughes with the full cooperation of his estate after Hughes’s widow, Carol, withdrew her support for the book. The unauthorised biography is published next week by William Collins.


Nadia Khomami

The GuardianTramp

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