In the world of poetry, the discovery of an unpublished work by the late poet laureate Ted Hughes about his relationship with Sylvia Plath is like the discovery of an unheard Beatles tape. It took a couple of decades for Hughes to use his relationship with Plath as material for poetry, but when he did it was explosive.
His last collection, ‘Birthday Letters’ and his smaller collection, ‘Howls and Whispers’ (only a hundred copies were initially printed for family and friends, but the collection was later reprinted in his collected works) are a deep and tragic insight into their toxic but poetically prolific relationship.
Hughes and Plath met at Cambridge University. They married soon after, and whilst Hughes began receiving notoriety for his first collection of poetry ‘The Hawk in the Rain’, Plath played housewife to their two children. Yet she felt dissatisfied and repressed living in the shadow of her successful husband.
After her first collection, ‘Colossus’, failed to achieve the same recognition as Hughes’ debut, she suffered a black depression which ultimately led to her famous suicide. Her posthumous collection ‘Ariel’ (which until Hughes’ death wasn’t published in the order she intended, censoring the more personal poems) revealed a dark insight into her home life and her relationship with her father (whom she compares to a Nazi officer in her poem ‘Daddy’). Following Plath’s death and the release of Ariel, the legend surrounding Plath and Hughes stirred great media interest – even inspiring the subsequent motion picture, ‘Sylvia’.
‘Last Letter’, Hughes’ recently discovered poem, is arguably the most insightful he has produced regarding his relationship with Plath. It describes the night he was informed of her suicide with vivid, haunting details: a chilling retelling from someone reliving the few hours before the Plath’s death.
At the time of Plath’s death, Hughes was having an affair with a woman who would later become his second wife – so it is hardly surprising that he didn’t want it to be published in ‘Birthday Letters’. Even so, the ending of the final stanza: ‘Then a voice like a selected weapon/ Or a measured injection/ coolly delivered its four words/ Deep into my ear: ‘Your wife is dead” clearly demonstrates the intense and personal feelings felt in the poem.
But it is wonderful to finally have Hughes’ account of that night in all its morbid, desolate beauty. The poem is beautiful, captivating and surely one of Hughes’ finest.