The fear that cripples me,
Is how my bride will be
Upon our wedding night;
That I will have chosen
A Phaedra-monster of my own,
Who will betray me
As my father is betrayed.
Better be alone
And take what comes.'
—from "Hippolytus" by Frieda Hughes
A few months ago I came across Frieda Hughes's 2003 collection Waxworks at Trident Booksellers of Boulder. I browsed it not expecting much, because I hadn't been overly impressed by anything I'd read from Frieda previously. I did like several of the poems I selected at random, and bought the volume. Just a couple of weeks ago, I started reading it properly, and that same week I came across news of a lost Ted Hughes poem. I've certainly mused a lot about the Plath/Hughes family, and written about them, including here, and on TNB, in "Slender Mitochondrial Strand". I've never been much for soap operas, but in the lives of poets and their companions, whether it's the fate of Vivienne Eliot née Haigh-Wood or the sexuality of Sappho, it's really the manifestation in poetry that fixes my interest. The Plath/Hughes drama is clearly aforefront when the journalist writes:
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 the drama also carries all presage of a great poem, which is published in a special edition of the New Statesman magazine. As the journal's Weblog crows, "Exclusive: Ted Hughes’s poem on the night Sylvia Plath died:"
In tomorrow's New Statesman, which has been guest-edited by Melvyn Bragg, we publish a previously unseen poem by Ted Hughes. "Last letter" is a poem that describes what happened during the three days leading up to the suicide of his first wife, the poet Sylvia Plath. Its first line is: "What happened that night? Your final night." -- and the poem ends with the moment Hughes is informed of his wife's death.
Hughes's best-known work is 1998's Birthday Letters, a collection of poems that detail his relationship with Plath. Though the published poems make reference to Plath's suicide, which occurred in February 1963, when she and Hughes were separated but still married, none of them addresses directly the circumstances of her death. This, then, would appear to be the "missing link" in the sequence.
The entry includes several images of various hand-written drafts of the poem, none of which are very legible to the casual eye. In order to read the entire poem I'll have to get my hands on a copy of the current New Statesman, the subscription for which is not cheap. I did check on WorldCat and it looks as if the University of Colorado at Boulder Library carries a subscription, so I'm planning to go look tomorrow. I'm hoping it's not a wild goose chase like when WorldCat suggested the Denver Public Library had The collected poems of H. Phelps Putnam, and I drove over only to learn they'd lost it years ago. If I find the poem, I'll post my thoughts on it here.
Meanwhile, for a teaser, Channel 4 UK had an actor recite an excerpt of the poem on air ("Newly discovered Ted Hughes poem"
), and on their page I found a text excerpt:
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.
Very intriguing. A faint whiff of Four Quartets but with Hughes's accustomed blood and guts, sharpened by the life experience itself. I'm looking forward very much to getting my hands on a copy.