A series of deeply personal unpublished poems by Ted Hughes has been discovered and will be auctioned at Sotheby’s next week.
The previously unseen poems were written shortly after the poet’s partner, Assia Wevill, killed herself and their daughter, Shura, in 1969, six years after the suicide of Hughes’s first wife Sylvia Plath.
The poetry, handwritten in Hughes’s notebook, is a mixture of short fragments and more complete drafts of poems. There are four poems at the end of the series that seem to be more “finished”, which Gabriel Heaton, Sotheby’s books specialist, believes to be some of the “most direct” work Hughes produced about his emotional state. These poems clearly express his grief for Wevill and Shura, with one poem directly addressed to his daughter. “You were too young to know about death …” reads one line, while another section, addressed to Wevill, asks: “When you were thinking / You wanted to kill yourself why …”
Heaton said he thinks the series was Hughes’s way of putting “some shape on to these events, by expressing himself in poetry, which is of course the way that he naturally expressed himself.”
The series has come to Sotheby’s from Frieda Hughes, the daughter of Hughes and Plath, along with several other items from the Hughes family collection, which will also go on sale.
The poetry was only recently found, Heaton believes. “I think probably it was just rather hidden away by Ted Hughes” because of its highly personal content, he said.
The other items from the collection include a lock of Plath’s hair, her mirror and childhood stamp collection. Hughes’s copy of the Cambridge student magazine that led to his first meeting with Plath is also featured. The story goes that Plath was so struck by Hughes’s poems when she read the issue that she attended the magazine’s launch party the same day and met him there.
“But undoubtedly, the most important, fascinating, and in many ways the most difficult item is this notebook of poems,” said Heaton.
The book of poems, which offer an insight into the overwhelming grief and loss that Hughes experienced, is expected to sell for between £10,000 and £15,000.
The four pages of verse are written in ink, and were clearly not intended for publication – some of the handwriting is not even legible. Their incomplete structure “suggests that Hughes found the subject too painful and abandoned the works”, according to Sotheby’s.
Until the 1998 publication of Birthday Letters, his response to the suicide of Sylvia Plath, Hughes had not published poems with an overtly autobiographical theme. These poems now up for auction, believed to have been written at around the same time Hughes was writing Crow, published in 1970, seem to have much more in common with Crow and the Birthday Letters poems than they do with Capriccio, the series of poems that Hughes would go on to write about Wevill 20 years later. The newly discovered poems, while sharing a subject, are “much more direct” and raw than the 20 poems in Capriccio, Heaton said.
In fact, the manuscript seems to be completely distinct from the Capriccio sequence, which is why Heaton believes that these poems were Hughes’s private reflections and never intended for publication. They provide a glimpse of Hughes’s memories of his lost daughter, and make for “very powerful reading”, Heaton said.
The notebook, along with approximately 30 other lots from the Hughes family collection, will be offered in Sotheby’s Books, Manuscripts and Music from Medieval to Modern sale, open for bidding from 12-19 July.
• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123, or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.or
• This article was amended on 12 July 2022. A previous caption incorrectly identified the child in the image as Shura, rather than Frieda.