John Walsh: Hughes's inner turmoil laid bare

Sunday 23 October 2011 06:41

Ted Hughes's poem "Last Letter", newly discovered in the British Library, is a shattering piece of work. Not because it's the first piece of writing in which he addressed the circumstances of Sylvia Plath's suicide. Not because it tracks through the last three days of her unhappy life on earth. Not even because it's a great poem, although it has moments of Parnassian brilliance. What makes it an emotionally draining experience is the tension it embodies, between what the angry, distraught, bewildered husband Ted Hughes wants to say about his wife's final hours, and what the cool, judicious, focused poet Ted Hughes will allow himself to say about them for posterity. Wordsworth said poetry was "emotion recollected in tranquillity". I don't believe I've ever read a poem in which emotion was so obviously recollected in anguish and turmoil, barely contained by the formal requirements of line, sense and rhythm.

Not only is it the missing last letter of the Birthday Letters collection (Hughes dropped it from the volume, finally published in 1998), it's also about the last letter he ever received from his wife. Sylvia Plath left no suicide note before she gassed herself, but the letter she sent Hughes on 7 February 1963 was obviously about her intention of killing herself. She was in London. He was in Yorkshire. On receiving the letter (on the day it was posted), he rushed to London and was relieved to find her alive. Smiling, she burned the letter in front of him. The poem wonders if she'd arranged it so that he'd receive her letter on Saturday morning, after she'd died, and spend the next few days in hell ("How I would have got through that weekend/ I cannot imagine. Had you plotted it all?"). He reflects, with understandable ruefulness, that only the super-efficiency of the Post Office saved her life that Friday, three days before she finally snuffed it out at 4.30am on Monday morning.

There's a whole cat's cradle of conflicting emotions going on in these lines – sorrow, regret, fury, tenderness, a recognition that she'd timed her letter to cause him maximum pain, combined with the memory of how lovingly she took her leave of him. A desire to call her a scheming bitch wrestles with the impulse to call her softer names.

Things become more complicated if you look at the scribbled, early drafts of the poem. About the letter he writes, "If it had reached me/ Saturday morning as it should have – by then/ You would have vanished from me. You would have vanished/ From behind the simple, loving words/ Of your farewell note." By the second draft, the lines have become "From behind the words of your farewell note." In the published version, there's no mention of her words – simple, loving or otherwise – only of the letter, its charred remains "carefully annihilated" in the ashtray.

Unless we're die-hard Hughes-haters, like the vandals who routinely chisel Hughes's name off Plath's gravestone, we can draw two conclusions. One, that Plath's suicide was long planned and anticipated, and she wasn't above using the timing of it to drive her husband round the twist. And two, that Hughes quietly removed any mention of Plath's final endearments to him, as though concerned that to include them might sound self-exculpatory. And so we leave him in agony, wondering how many times she tried to ring him from a phone-box on her last night alive; wondering whether he could have rushed to save her again; and unable to bear the thought that she never phoned him at all before she finally did it. It's the agony of un-knowing – the ambiguity of hoping and dreading, accusing and forgiving – that makes this easily the most moving poem I've read all year.

Boring gets interesting

Don't ask for me on a certain day in mid-December, because I shall be attending the inaugural gathering of "Boring 2010", a conference devoted to pushing the envelope of unpromising subject matter until it becomes as interesting as the stuff they discuss on QI.

More than 25 experts will address the ecstatic audience on such gripping matters as the history of dust and the reasons why Test matches end in draws. I hope to initiate a discussion on the wide variety of Jiffy bag sizes, another about the semiotics of signing your name in the air to tell a waiter you want the bill (and asking why, since nobody signs bills any more, we don't use an alternative gesture of PIN-number air-finger-prodding), and a third that computes the average time delay between Fiona Bruce's asking an outside-broadcast hack a question and the hapless hack in question becoming galvanised into replying. Riveting or what?

From ladies' man to grouch

David Bailey, the photographer, used to boast about his pulling power with women. Chelsea-posh or East End-common, Catherine Deneuve or Marie Helvin, all the ladies fell under his spell sooner or later. His secret was simple, he told me: "I just laughed them in to bed." His strategy has evidently changed over the years. On Radio 4's Today, he subjected lovely Sarah Montague to a barrage of abuse. "Oh you're Sarah," he began on a note of disgust. When she opined that his new book of pictures of British soldiers at Camp Bastien was unlike his usual fashion-model stuff, he replied, "It's not different, you're just very ill-informed." He growled replies to her enquiries about the camp, the smiling soldiers and the helicopters and, when she asked whether he enjoyed his trip to Afghanistan, he said, "You sound like a Daily Mail journalist," before forgetting the name of the charity which will benefit from his pictures, and signing off with "Can I go now?" Interesting to see the former Cockney Charmer mutate through Grumpy Old Man into Grouchy Old Sod.

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