Unseen Hughes Poem Details Sylvia Plath's Suicide

British magazine The New Statesman has published a previously unseen poem by Ted Hughes. Called "Last Letter," the poem deals with the three days leading up to the suicide of his first wife, fellow poet Sylvia Plath.

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One of the most intense controversies in the poetry world began with the suicide of Sylvia Plath in 1963. The young American poet and novelist killed herself in her London flat soon after separating from her husband, the British poet Ted Hughes.

From the beginning, many of Plath's fans blamed Hughes. And for years he responded with silence. Today, a British magazine is publishing a poem by Hughes never seen before. It's called "Last Letter." And in it Hughes finally spoke of that sad event. Here's an excerpt read for the BBC by novelist Melvyn Bragg at the moment Hughes was informed of Plath's death.

Mr. MELVYN BRAGG (Author): Then a voice like a selected weapon - or a measured injection - coolly delivered its four words deep into my ear. Your wife is dead.

MONTAGNE: To talk more about that poem we're joined from London by NPR's Philip Reeves.

And Phil, how did this poem come to light after all these years?

PHILIP REEVES: Well, it's been published in the magazine the New Statesman, which his calling this a world exclusive. The guest editor of this week's edition of that magazine is the arts(ph) broadcaster and novelist Melvyn Bragg, whose voice we've just heard.

And it turns out that a number of drafts of this poem were in the Ted Hughes archive in the British Library. Bragg was led to these by Hughes's widow, Carol, who is a friend of his.

MONTAGNE: And this is important, obviously, because of this long controversy, but also because of the stature of both Plath and Hughes.

REEVES: Well, exactly. I mean, both are, as you know, considered to be among the greatest poets of the 20th century. And it's important also because the poem deals in detail with what happened during the last weekend of Plath's life in that bitterly cold winter in England.

It gives a sense of the torment, I think, felt by Hughes over her suicide. As you mentioned, you know, this has been the focus of acrimony and fascination for decades. Many people, particularly feminists, vilified Hughes, accusing him of triggering her suicide by leaving her for another woman, a woman who also later killed herself and also their four-year-old daughter.

Plath's tombstone was vandalized, if you recall, by people who were trying to scrub out an inscription on it, because it was put their by Hughes.

Of course we now know - and it was known back then too, but you know, these were different times - that Plath was suffering from depression. A complex, terrible condition which was far less well recognized back then than it is today.

MONTAGNE: And what's the reaction been to this discovery, if you will, of this new poem about the suicide?

REEVES: Well, there's tremendous interest in intellectual and literary circles. And it's also featuring quite prominently in the media here in Britain. Bragg says this unseen poem, "Last Letter," is crucial as it's a keystone, he says, a kind of missing piece in what many see as the finest book of poetry Hughes every wrote, "The Birthday Letters." That was published in 1998, close to the end of Hughes's life. It sold half a million copies and won a number of prestigious prizes.

Hughes was Britain's poet laureate. The current holder of that post, Carol Ann Duffy, has been talking about this new poem. And she says that "Last Letter" is almost unbearable to read and says it seems to touch a deeper, darker place than any poem that Ted Hughes has written.

MONTAGNE: So that poem will be out today in the magazine the New Statesman -"Last Letter," about the suicide of Sylvia Plath.

NPR's Philip Reeves speaking from London. Thanks.

REEVES: You're welcome.

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