Thursday 07. October 2010
Ted Hughes: Birthday Letters (front cover)

Ted Hughes: Birthday Letters (front cover)

New Statesman publishes Hughes manuscript poem

The New Statesman has published a "previously unseen" manuscript poem, "Last Letter", from the British Library's Ted Hughes Archive. The poem, which belongs in the context of Birthday Letters, apparently deals with the night when Sylvia Plath killed herself.

Ann Skea writes:

"I made a transcript of the poem when I was at the library just before the conference. It can be found in Additional Mss 88918/1/6 and begins "What did happen that Saturday night? ..."

It tells of a letter which Sylvia wrote to Ted indicating that she was going to commit suicide. The letter arrived earlier than she had expected it to (written and posted on Friday and delivered that day), Ted rushed to her flat to find her still alive. He burst into tears. He remembers "... last sight of you/ Burning your farewell letter to me, in the ashtray".

In another draft he burned the letter in her ashtray before leaving, thinking she was OK. He then spent the weekend at 18 Rugby Street with Sue Alliston, in the marriage bed he had shared with Sylvia. "I only raced from and from and never guessed / Toward what –".

He returned to his own residence after driving Sue to work on Monday morning only to receive a phone call saying "Your wife is dead".

It is a harrowing poem, full of his feelings of guilt and horror.

The other draft tells of Ted finding Sylvia's very last note propped against that same ash tray after her death and containing just the phone number of her doctor."

There are also drafts of a poem about Shirley, the girlfriend Sylvia ousted at Cambridge. And drafts which identify the second woman in "The Offers", who was [...] a friend of Olwyn's who came to visit her whilst she was at Court Green after Sylvia's death. Her name, too, is Shirley [...]. Her birthday is the same day and month as Sylvia's but not the same year."

Here is the news article in the New Statesman, and below is the full reading by Jonathan Pryce for Channel 4 and a video of the Channel 4 news report.