Published: Friday, October 8, 2010 - 1:37pm
- "What happened that night, that final night,
Double treble exposure over everything.
Late afternoon, Friday, my last sight of you alive.
Burning your letter to me in the ashtray.
With that strange smile."
Yesterday, former poet laureate Ted Hughes' final ode to his first wife, American poet Sylvia Plath, appeared in the English current events magazine The New Statesman. Though the full text isn't yet online (though you can see pictures of the drafts here--I think they're illegible, but, you know), there is video of actor Jonathan Pryce reading the poem for Chanel 4 News.
Hughes, who died in 1999, published 16 volumes of poetry and one posthumous collection including the multiple-award-winning "Birthday Letters," which contains the arc of his marriage to Plath, but no reflections on her death. "Last Letter," the only poem of its kind, was never published, and in fact remained in a Swiss bank vault until 2008, when his archive of over 200 boxes of personal letters and manuscripts was bought by the British Museum for £500,000. The letter was then found by Melvyn Bragg, and published with the help of Hughes' widow Carol.
The poem itself is heartbreaking, the story of how Plath posted her suicide note too soon, and how it reached Hughes before her death. How, terrified, he went instead to his mistress Susan. And how, when he woke to a jarring telephone, a voice "like a selected weapon / Or a measured injection, / Coolly delivered its four words / Deep into my ear: 'Your wife is dead. '"
It may well be Hughes' magnum opus. It's also the most terrifying, numb, and heartrendingly sad poem I've ever read.
"Last Letter" can be read in The New Statesman, available in the U of I Education Library.