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A last letter seared in fierce flames

2010 October 13
by Paul Vallely

It is a long steep climb from the little Pennine milltown of Hebden Bridge to the hilltop village of Hepstonstall. I once met a man who had lived there for 35 years. The locals still called him an “offcumdun” because he had been born elsewhere in Yorkshire. Memories are long in that part of the world. That perhaps explains why the tombstone of the poet Sylvia Plath, who was buried there nearly 50 years ago, is still routinely defaced.

“Sylvia Plath Hughes, 1934-1963,” the stone says, above the words “Even amidst fierce flames – the golden lotus can be planted.” The church in whose grounds she lies is dedicated to St Thomas a Becket, a martyr, which is apt for Plath, at least in the eyes of those of her fans who blame her untimely death on her poet husband Ted Hughes, who owned a house nearby. He had left her for another woman just before she took her own life. His name has repeatedly been daubed, or even chiselled, from the granite.

The discovery this week of a poem by Hughes about Plath’s final hours has resurrected the old anger at an unhappy story which has over the years been elevated to a tragedy of romantic proportion. These were star-crossed lovers, ill-met by Magdaelene, a study in contrasts. He, as dark and dour as his hometown of Mytholmroyd, down the valley from Hebden, a world where beauty and cruelty co-existed as in the eponymous Hawk in the Rain of his first volume of poems. She, a privileged and preppy American, luminous and brittle, whose poetic intelligence burned, as she put it, “bright as a Nazi lampshade”.

They began as a golden couple, marrying within four months of meeting at Cambridge. But from the start they consumed one another with an intensity as fierce as the vivid imagery they both deployed.

As they met Hughes decided studying literature was killing his creativity. He had a dream in which a flaming fox – an image of his raw and untutored poetic instincts – entered his room and left a burning pawprint on the unfinished English essay on his desk.  Just before they parted he broadcast a radio play, The Difficulties of a Bridegroom, based on a dream in which a young man runs over a hare, sells it to a butcher, and with the money buys red roses for his mistress. Plath was devastated.

Plath, for her part, used equally disturbing images. She imagined her German father “chuffing me off like a Jew… to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen”. She portrayed Hughes as a substitute for her father, “a man in black with a Meinkampf look” – a vampire who drank her blood for seven years.

The livid nature of such imagery, along with the wracked romance of its authors, have freighted Plath and Hughes with a far heavier emotional burden in the popular imagination than the frail minds and bodies of two mere mortals can bear. They have ceased to be a man and woman and become mythic archetypes in some cosmic struggle between angry manhood and anguished femininity. Their lives have become charged with emotion, gender politics and stereotype. Hughes is the terrible husband and father. Plath is the self-absorbed navel-gazer who leaves her kids without a mother.

The truth is more complicated. Plath was not simply driven to suicide by Hughes; she had battled with depression for years, suffered a nervous breakdown and had a history of suicide attempts long before she came to England and met the Yorkshireman . Like many strong men Hughes was weak when it came to coping with the fallibility of others, and ran away. But such prosaic facts sit ill with the mythology of tragedy.

The complexity of their wild range of emotions is clear from both Plath’s posthumous volume of poems,  Ariel, and Hughes’ Birthday Letters, a collection cataloguing the attempts he had made to work through his conflicts with Plath. They take the form of verse letters written to his dead wife over a 30 year period – but which he found too personal to publish, insisting on  “slamming the door of the imagination” on her death. They were published in 1998, the year he died, and showed him meandering through guilt, regret, perplexity and anger – with himself, but with her too.  The turmoil achieved no resolution.

What they did not contain was the 150-line poem recalling their last meeting. It was a sequence of events so unlikely, with symbolism so grim, as to seem implausible had they not happened in real life. One Friday morning  Plath posted a letter to reach Hughes on Saturday morning, after her intended suicide. But, with an efficiency the Post Office would not recognise today, it was delivered that same afternoon. The new-found poem, Last Letter, reveals that he rushed round to her house with the letter. She took it from him and set it alight. “My last sight of you alive/ burning your letter to me, in the ashtray/ with that strange smile.”

Two days later, after taking milk and biscuits upstairs to the children’s bedroom, and carefully taping up the door to protect them, she placed her head in the oven and the woman who had once outraged some by describing herself as “a bit of a Jew” gassed herself. In one of the Birthday Letters poems he writes: “My body sank into the folk-tale/ where the wolves are singing in the forest/ for two babes, who have turned, in their sleep/ into orphans beside the corpse of their mother”. Last Letter is a harrowing poem of regret and remorse:

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….


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.’

It is not hard to see why Hughes did not publish it while he lived. It is more a private diary entry than a poem, raw, bleeding, almost unbearable to read. “It feels a bit like looking into the sun as it’s dying,” said the present poet laureate CarolAnn Duffy.

Nor was it over for Hughes. Five years later Assia Wevill, the woman for whom he left Sylvia Plath, dragged a bed into the kitchen of her Clapham flat, turned on the gas stove and got into bed with their four-year-old daughter, Shura, killing them both. Perhaps this is what Hughes means in Last Letter when he talks of “double, treble exposure/ over everything.”

Whatever he had done, or failed to do, the revenge of Hughes’s women on him was, the poems show, agonising.  After the death of Assia and their child he wrote perhaps his greatest collection, Crow – a bleak, bitter portrait of a world teetering on the brink of apocalypse. At their heart, he told a friend, he imagined a man sitting in the desert, by a tree containing a cruel black crow. The man has a gun loaded with a single bullet. He is torn with indecision over whether to shoot the bird or himself. Last year he and Plath’s son Nicholas Hughes also died by his own hand after battling depression for some time.

The words on Plath’s grave Hughes selected from one of the four great classic novels of Chinese literature, Monkey: Journey to the West by Wu Ch’Eng-En. The complete quotation reads: “Even in the midst of fierce flames the Golden Lotus may be planted, the five elements compounded and transposed, and put to new use. When that is done, be which you please, Buddha or Immortal.”

The story of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, monumental figures in more senses than one, has not yet been put to rest.


from The Independent on Sunday


“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
For me.
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.
My escape
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.

                                       That night
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.
Monday morning
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.’


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