In 1995, Ted Hughes wrote to a friend that some of the poems he had written about his relationship with Sylvia Plath were just too personal to be published at that time. Among them would have been Last Letter, a work written in several drafts in a blue 1970s exercise book and then finally typed out – a sign that the former poet laureate considered the poem finished.
Some 12 years after Hughes' death, Last Letter was published for the first time yesterday after his widow, Carol, directed the broadcaster and writer Melvyn Bragg to the drafts of the poem among the 465 folders of material which constitute the poet's archive in the British Library and also handed over her late husband's typed transcript.
The poem, a final coda to one of 20th-century literature's most fraught and tragic romances, was hailed as the "missing link" in Hughes' writing about his American first wife, who gassed herself at the age of 30 in February 1963. It is the first time that Hughes has directly addressed the events of Plath's death.
But its publication lays bare once more the tension between the desire to make public every detail of the work of writers – from Mark Twain to Vladimir Nabokov – whose genius makes their oeuvre seem the common property of all humanity and the desire of those writers and the guardians of their legacy to keep unpublished works private and, in some cases, destroy them altogether.
The beyond-the-grave appearance of the Hughes poem also coincides with a dramatic increase in the scale of the posthumous publication industry in Britain and abroad. The British Library will next year release 65,000 copyright-expired books via Amazon and as free downloads on the Kindle device while Google is forging ahead with its plan to digitise millions of out-of-print texts.
Lord Bragg hinted yesterday that Carol Hughes had thought long and hard before she pointed him towards the drafts of Last Letter, which was also omitted from Birthday Letters, the 1998 collection in which Ted Hughes explored his relationship with Plath and which is considered to be his masterpiece.
Lord Bragg, who paid tribute to how "fiercely and scrupulously" Carol Hughes guards her late husband's legacy, said: "I rang up Carol and eventually, after a while, she agreed that I could look at a particular poem. I honestly could not believe my eyes. I didn't know what to do."
While Ted Hughes left the posthumous publication of his writing to the absolute discretion of his widow, recent literary history is littered with examples of authors who were more prescriptive in their demands for what should happen to unpublished work after their deaths.
Franz Kafka famously requested his friend Max Brod to destroy all of his work and it is only thanks to Mr Brod's blatant dereliction of duty that the world can read such classics as The Trial, The Castle and Amerika.
The diary of the French literary theorist Roland Barthes was published in France last year amid claims from his former editor that it violated the dead man's privacy. The publisher in turn said it had the permission of Barthes' half-brother and the fact the diary had been given a title made it a "real literary project".
Posthumously-published works by Nabokov, who also ordered that his unpublished texts be destroyed, and Irene Nemirovsky, the Russian-born novelist whose account of the persecution of the Jews in wartime France became an international best-seller, have proven the strong appeal of beyond-the-grave literature to readers and publishers alike. Forthcoming works by David Foster Wallace, the widely-admired American author who killed himself in 2008, and Chilean writer Roberto Bolano, whose 2666 led to his fame in the English-speaking world only after his death, are expected to be best-sellers.
Philip Larkin asked his lover to destroy all his diaries after his death. Anthony Thwaite, the poet who was one of two literary executors of Larkin's will and published a volume of letters which cast new – and unflattering – light on Larkin, said: "There is always a difficult judgment to be made in these cases. In the case of Ted Hughes, if Carol Hughes has said that it is time for this poem to be published then that is right and we should be happy about it."
The poem is published in a special edition of the New Statesman magazine edited by Lord Bragg.
Posthumous literary legacies
Vladimir Nabokov The author of Lolita instructed his son, Dimitri, to destroy an unpublished work, The Original of Laura, after his death in 1977. Instead, the text lay in a Swiss bank vault until the family decided to publish it last year. The book was panned by critics.
Emily Dickinson The American saw fewer than a dozen of her 1,800 poems published in her lifetime and instructed her sister to burn it all upon her death in 1886. She did not and Dickinson is considered a major figure in US literature.
JD Salinger The famously reclusive author of Catcher in the Rye refused to publish anything after 1965 but told one neighbour he had written 15 unseen novels. Publishers have been agog since his death in January at the possibility that these works may eventually see the light of day.