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Long-lost Ted Hughes poem focuses on Sylvia Plath's suicide

Poet Ted Hughes' long-lost poem "Last Letter" will be published Thursday in The New Statesman, BBC4 reported Wednesday afternoon. The poem directly addresses the suicide of his wife, the writer Sylvia Plath.

Actor Jonathan Pryce read part of the poem for the broadcast, reading:

Late afternoon Friday
my last sight of you alive
burning your letter to me
in the ashtray
with that strange smile

Sylvia Plath, who today is best-known as the author of the autobiographical novel "The Bell Jar," was a young poet living in England when she met Ted Hughes, then also a young poet. The two married in 1956, moved to the U.S. for three years, and then returned to England. They had two children together.

Plath was 30 when she killed herself by inhaling the fumes from an unlit oven. Hughes went on to become one of the significant British poets of the 20th century, serving as British poet laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998.

The poem includes how Hughes learned of Plath's death, in its final lines.

And I had started to write when the telephone
Jerked awake, in a jabbering alarm,
Remembering everything. It recovered in my hand.
Then a voice like a selected weapon
Or a measured injection,
Coolly delivered its four words
Deep into my ear: 'Your wife is dead.

The poem was found in the British Library archive by The New Statesman and Carol Hughes, the poet's widow. The BBC report is below.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes with one of their children. Credit: File



Comments () | Archives (15)

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The news segment is from Channel 4, not the BBC.

This reminded me of when someone died in my family. It is so hard to believe.This poem really hits home. Expressing then total sum of the voice heard to it's hurt.

Personally, I think Hughes has a tremendous nerve writing that poem. As if he really cared about Sylvia at all! From what I understand, the pair had a rather troubled relationship from the start, yes, complicated by her mental illness/depression...but definitely complicated by his infidelity...with her best friend, of all people! It seems as if there were two men basically let Plath down: her father and her husband. It's truly sad that Plath thought that the only way to end her problems and unhappiness was to end her life. According to Wikipedia, Plath was raised a Unitarian, but questioned religion all her life. It's truly too bad she couldn't have taken comfort in our Lord. Maybe if she had, she wouldn't have killed herself then...but I suppose one will never know.

Great... A self-righteous prick of a Christian - oh, "a poet, too" - comes on and starts the guff about Ted not caring for Sylvia. Though the evidence is right in front of him that the man experienced great loss when she died, this kn0w-nothing leans on the expertise of Wikipedia to inform him, rather than, oh say, the thousands of words already written about the couple, about their intense and enviable passion for one another, about their shared infidelities, about their children, their life on the farm and in the city... or even the book Ted himself wrote about Sylvia, where his deep love and concern for his shines through, and where his guilt and depression over her loss (and his contribution to her misery) are plainly evident.

I can tell you one thing, "a poet, too:" Ted loved and respected Sylvia a lot more than you respect her in your post. It's not "truly too bad she couldn't have taken comfort" in your imaginary gods - but it is truly too bad you lack the very heart and compassion that "your Lord" implores you to obtain.

Cal I find you offensive and mean. How can you berate someone for their opinion and religious views? It's so easy to sit behind a computer and berate and try to belittle someone isn't it? Why does it offend you so? So what if you don't believe in God or as you like to call "imaginary gods"? No one on here is telling you how to believe I do believe that "a poet too" was just giving her God given right as an American to exercise his or her freedom of speech. To disagree with someone is fine but to do it in a manor such as yours is just pathetic and wrong.

As a British/American Literature major, it is well documented that both Sylvia and Ted had affairs. Yes, she did have mental health problems but I'm sure the numerous infidelities that Ted had made her condition that much worse. However that being said, he did love her, very much. He has written poetry about her many, many times. I found this lost poem very beautiful and touching. I wish that Sylvia had sought out help, I can only imagine what her writings could have been.

Self-righteous? Hardly. Your very rude, phallocentric and definitely self-righteous and prejudicial comments say more about YOU than it does about anyone else. I stand by what I say in my post. Suicide is NOT the answer to people's problems. I do not disrespect Ms. Plath as you claim, but I certainly don't "worship" her either...as apparently you do and in your fannish mania have to tear down anyone who doesn't share your POV. I'm just sorry for you that you have to resort to attacks rather than behave like an adult.

Also, I am NOT a "know nothing." I happen to have TWO BA degrees...and I happen to use wikipedia because it is convenient. It is a resource used by MILLIONS the world over, and while it certainly has its flaws, it is legitimate as anything else.

Also, atheists like you have no compassion whatsoever...especially when ridiculing what you don't understand. God is real, make no mistake about that! You'll find that out soon enough at the end of the age.

yes but if you think anyone should not have written a poem, whether due to a surfeit of 'nerve' or for any reason whatsoever, you are clearly not 'a poet too', however many words you've tried to use to make it so.

Wow. The comments are more entertaining than the article.

There's one thing about writers and poets...everything is grist for the mill. When you have emotions and thoughts about anything in your life, you write poems about it. That is how you make your living. Good, bad or indifferent - and whether we like or vilify Ted Hughes, he wrote about their relationship - and there's no question - he knew about that relationship better than anyone. I don't see that there's anything to criticize about what he wrote and his right to do it.

It seems agreed on all sides that Plath met Hughes at a party, and there expressed interest in him by bite-kissing him so hard that blood ran down his face. She was mad to do it, and he was mad to find this beguiling. (I don't suggest you experiment like this, but that must have been a very powerful bite.)

I am very sorry she killed herself, and express the view that this is just about the worst thing any mother of young children can do. Her last caring gesture to her two little ones -- the older one was aged two -- was to block escaping gas from the kitchen stove with wet towels, so the kids didn't die with her as well.

One must regard the whole dreadful business with compassion for the four-member Hughes family. Part of the Plath legacy is that that has proved impossible for most. Her family physician, on viewing the orderly death scene, said it portrayed an irrational compulsion.

As to Wikipedia, I took a look at the page a few minutes ago,. In the section on Plath's Legacy, it lists sundry writings. Possibly I missed this, but the children, who'd now be nearly 50 years of age, don't seem any part of her legacy. The Plath cult is mighty strange.

What about the poem. I don't care whether someone's an atheist or not (though we finally get to the bottom of it, don't we, when it comes to the believers, warning us that we'll get ours in the end, won't we! So much for the compassion also a poet professes. What a shame this all comes down to religion and whether or not Ted really loved her or whether she should have committed suicide or not. All irrelevant to the poem. What about the poem. Pretend it's a 100 years from now and all you know is it's a poem written about the death of a loved one. Is the poem any good or not. Did he falsify his emotions by invoking language meant to be poetic, and not true?--which is the point of language, to create the "illusion" of authenticity. Too much poetic crap and I lose faith in the poet. Bland and flat language fails to move me. So what about the art, to create the illusion of authenticity. I, for one, find some of the poem forced, bad poetry that passes for poetry, like an actor who "overacts." But let's talk about the poem. Not all that other crap about infidelity and god, which cheapens the whole discussion. Try not to be presumptuous about what love is between two people, despite their personal flaws. Just take the poem as it is, and . . . . does it work, does it move you, does it stimulate you intellectually, how does it impact your own experience in your own life, etc. Is the spelling correct? (that was a joke).
Now what? Do I just say, yours truly? This is the first time I've posted a comment on these things. I'm still writing letters by hand and speaking to friends through a tin can connected with a string. I'll just sign off with TTFN,
Tigger's wonderful "ta ta for now!"

Jack (not in a box, not of all trades, not straw, not ass (well, sometimes), not the flag on a ship, not o'lantern), just jack.

At the end of the day, Sylvia Plath chose to kill herself. The years of all these women trying to guilt, shame and blame Ted Hughes for being a hound dog need to stop. The man felt guilty about her death -- I would hope so, since otherwise he's a truly miserable person -- and he expressed it in a poem. And so we're supposed to censor his expression because he's a bad man. Boo hoo! By the way, exercising your right of free speech does not exempt you from rejoinders that might be hurtful to you; speech is not a one-way street. So ladies, have at me!

Ted and Sylvia Plath Hughes' two children: Frieda Hughes is a poet and painter in England. Nicholas Hughes, a fisheries biologist, died from suicide in 2009. His sister said he had suffered a long time with chronic depression.

What a great find. A very moving and haunting poem. Sylvia Plath was a wonderful writer, deeply gifted. It is very touching to read this poem, it seems very personal and intimate.


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