A letter reduced to ashes
The draft of a poem in which Ted Hughes describes the night his wife, poet Sylvia Plath, committed suicide has been published for the first time. Here is an insight into the life of two eminent poets, their work, relationship and life.
Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath
I first became acquainted with Sylvia Plath and her poetry when I came across her poem Daddy, written shortly before she committed suicide. The poem shook me, gave me goosebumps. I quickly googled her name and found myself absorbed in the Wikipedia page detailing her life, her failed marriage with Poet Laureate Ted Hughes and the ruthless way she chose to end the 30 years of her life. I was 14 then and perhaps a little fascinated by the morbid. A year later, I was studying Plath’s poem Mirror in my class 10 English Literature textbook. My definition of poetry was altered for ever. Since then, Plath’s poetry and life have never ceased to amaze me.
Sylvia Plath was a brilliant student and a Fulbright scholar. Her father died when she was eight and this event somehow never allowed the sombre clouds of depression to clear away from her life. She first attempted suicide when she was 20 while working at a coveted position as the guest editor with the fashion magazine Mademoiselle. She met her husband, British poet Ted Hughes, while she was in Cambridge University on a government grant. Hughes, an alumnus, was visiting his friend and happened to be there. They met, wrote poems to each other, fell in love and got married a few months later. The poet couple wrote extensively during this period and had two children— but this wasn’t a happy ending. Hughes had an affair with a married woman named Assia Wevill and she got pregnant with their child. Plath and Hughes called off their marriage with Plath taking the custody of their children- Freida and Nicholas. She moved to London and rented the house where poet William Butler Yeats once lived. Ironically, she considered it good omen. The year was 1962 and the winter was the coldest in 100 years. The children kept falling sick, the pipes froze and the house had no telephone. Plath’s depression aggravated leading her to end her life in what I consider the most brutal way of committing suicide— she placed her head in the oven with the gas on and died of carbon monoxide poisoning. She sealed the rooms between the kitchen and the rest of the house and covered them with wet towels and cloths to save her children, peacefully asleep and ignorant of their mother’s ordeal.
Six years later, Assia Wevill killed herself and her daughter from Hughes, Shura, by gassing herself in a way similar to that of Plath. Enraged feminists blamed Hughes for the death of the two women, some even threatened to kill him.
Hughes never commented much on the matter and showed reluctance on expressing his opinion. In 1970, he married Carol Orchard, a nurse, and they stayed together until his death. However, in his last poetic work, Birthday Letters, published in 1998 shortly before his death, he analyses his complex relationship with Plath and alludes to her suicide. Now, a previously unpublished poem by Hughes has been discovered at the British Library 47 years after Plath’s shocking death. The poem, entitled ‘The Last Letter’, deals with the events surrounding the night of Plath’s death in February 1963. He mentions a letter Plath sent him the day before she planned to kill herself. Strangely enough, the letter arrived the same afternoon and he rushed to his estranged wife to ascertain if everything was alright. Plath assured him and burnt the letter in his presence. Hughes writes,
‘Burning your letter to me in the ashtray with that strange smile.
What did you say over the smoking shards of the letter…’
In the poem, Hughes reveals he was with Susan Alliston, and not Assia Wevill, the night Sylvia killed herself.
My dellarobbia Susan.
We went to Rugby St
Where you and I began.’
The poem is very disturbing and is more like a diary entry of a distraught husband with a guilty conscience. Somewhere it seems that he is imagining events where he was unresponsive and taciturn to Sylvia, like never being in his apartment to answer her phone calls. Her images haunt him,
‘How often you walked to the phone-booth
At the bottom of St George’s terrace.
You are there whenever I look, just turning
Out of Fitzroy Road’
The Last Letter was never published in Hughes’ lifetime as it remained incomplete to the day of his death in October 1998. Was it for his illness, choice or conscience, we’ll never know.
- This image is from the original draft of the poem ©New Statesman
In 1982, Sylvia Plath posthumously won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Her works, along with those of Ted Hughes, remain extremely popular and widely read to this day. Is it the heart-wrenching tragedy that makes the “peanut-crunching” public flock to their story, I don’t know. At least for me, it is the somewhat intangible element and delicate nature of their poetry and style, strongly influenced by their personal histories. At times, I find myself sympathising with Sylvia and condemning Hughes of treachery, cruelty and infidelity. What actually happened between them? Who was wrong? It doesn’t really matter. And as for unfinished tales, we all try to give them the ending that pleases us the best.
The Last Letter by Ted Hughes
What happened that night? Your 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. Had I bungled your plan?
Had it surprised me sooner than you purposed?
Had I rushed it back to you too promptly?
One hour later—-you would have been gone
Where I could not have traced you.
I would have turned from your locked red door
That nobody would open
Still holding your letter,
A thunderbolt that could not earth itself.
That would have been electric shock treatment
Repeated over and over, all weekend,
As often as I read it, or thought of it.
That would have remade my brains, and my life.
The treatment that you planned needed some time.
I cannot imagine
How I would have got through that weekend.
I cannot imagine. Had you plotted it all?
Your note reached me too soon—-that same day,
Friday afternoon, posted in the morning.
The prevalent devils expedited it.
That was one more straw of ill-luck
Drawn against you by the Post-Office
And added to your load. I moved fast,
Through the snow-blue, February, London twilight.
Wept with relief when you opened the door.
A huddle of riddles in solution. Precocious tears
That failed to interpret to me, failed to divulge
Their real import. But what did you say
Over the smoking shards of that letter
So carefully annihilated, so calmly,
That let me release you, and leave you
To blow its ashes off your plan—-off the ashtray
Against which you would lean for me to read
The Doctor’s phone-number.
Had become such a hunted thing
Sleepless, hopeless, all its dreams exhausted,
Only wanting to be recaptured, only
Wanting to drop, out of its vacuum.
Two days of dangling nothing. Two days gratis.
Two days in no calendar, but stolen
From no world,
Beyond actuality, feeling, or name.
My love-life grabbed it. My numbed love-life
With its two mad needles,
Embroidering their rose, piercing and tugging
At their tapestry, their bloody tattoo
Somewhere behind my navel,
Treading that morass of emblazon,
Two mad needles, criss-crossing their stitches,
Selecting among my nerves
For their colours, refashioning me
Inside my own skin, each refashioning the other
With their self-caricatures,
Their obsessed in and out. Two women
Each with her needle.
My dellarobbia Susan. I moved
With the circumspection
Of a flame in a fuse. My whole fury
Was an abandoned effort to blow up
The old globe where shadows bent over
My telltale track of ashes. I raced
From and from, face backwards, a film reversed,
Towards what? We went to Rugby St
Where you and I began.
Why did we go there? Of all places
Why did we go there? Perversity
In the artistry of our fate
Adjusted its refinements for you, for me
And for Susan. Solitaire
Played by the Minotaur of that maze
Even included Helen, in the ground-floor flat.
You had noted her—-a girl for a story.
You never met her. Few ever met her,
Except across the ears and raving mask
Of her Alsatian. You had not even glimpsed her.
You had only recoiled
When her demented animal crashed its weight
Against her door, as we slipped through the hallway;
And heard it choking on infinite German hatred.
That Sunday night she eased her door open
Its few permitted inches.
Susan greeted the black eyes, the unhappy
Overweight, lovely face, that peeped out
Across the little chain. The door closed.
We heard her consoling her jailor
Inside her cell, its kennel, where, days later,
She gassed her ferocious kupo, and herself.
Susan and I spent that night
In our wedding bed. I had not seen it
Since we lay there on our wedding day.
I did not take her back to my own bed.
It had occurred to me, your weekend over,
You might appear—-a surprise visitation.
Did you appear, to tap at my dark window?
So I stayed with Susan, hiding from you,
In our own wedding bed—-the same from which
Within three years she would be taken to die
In that same hospital where, within twelve hours,
I would find you dead.
I drove her to work, in the City,
Then parked my van North of Euston Road
And returned to where my telephone waited.
What happened that night, inside your hours,
Is as unknown as if it never happened.
What accumulation of your whole life,
Like effort unconscious, like birth
Pushing through the membrane of each slow second
Into the next, happened
Only as if it could not happen,
As if it was not happening. How often
Did the phone ring there in my empty room,
You hearing the ring in your receiver—-
At both ends the fading memory
Of a telephone ringing, in a brain
As if already dead. I count
How often you walked to the phone-booth
At the bottom of St George’s terrace.
You are there whenever I look, just turning
Out of Fitzroy Road, crossing over
Between the heaped up banks of dirty sugar.
In your long black coat,
With your plait coiled up at the back of your hair
You walk unable to move, or wake, and are
Already nobody walking
Walking by the railings under Primrose Hill
Towards the phone booth that can never be reached.
Before midnight. After midnight. Again.
Again. Again. And, near dawn, again.
At what position of the hands on my watch-face
Did your last attempt,
Already deeply past
My being able to hear it, shake the pillow
Of that empty bed? A last time
Lightly touch at my books, and my papers?
By the time I got there my phone was asleep.
The pillow innocent. My room slept,
Already filled with the snowlit morning light.
I lit my fire. I had got out my papers.
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.’