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The Last Letter

October 7, 2010



Sylvia Plath’s work is notorious for the recurring themes of contemplation, self-reflection, and, as noted in ‘A Disturbance in Mirrors’ (a review of Plath’s work) glass, reflections, and mirrors. Altogether a resounding paradigm of the world surrounding her constantly returns to dark roots, with brief glimpses at brighter, sweeter descriptions of the surrounding atmosphere before returning to the consistent notes of struggling, darkness and conflict in one’s self.

Along with any biographical information widely known among poetry buffs, the first detail brought to both thought and expressed verbally is the fact of Sylvia Plath’s suicide when she was hardly 30 years old. Sylvia struggled with depression for most of her short life, and rumors have flown about that she had had bipolar disorder; although, her personality was often described as being ‘cheerful’, ‘optimistic’ and altogether happy. Many photographs of Plath are actually of her smiling, and several of her with Ted Hughes show Sylvia looking up at him with beaming admiration.

Her husband, whom she met while visiting Cambridge in 1954, is actually the topic of this post.

Ted Hughes never directly referred to Sylvia’s suicide in his works, or mentioned their rather complex relationship except hints in his last poetic work, ‘Birthday Letters’. The months, and even years following Sylvia’s death were days of silence for Ted Hughes, at least in regards to the public. He refrained from any debate regarding why Sylvia killed herself, and has never publically spoken of it to anyone…

But a poem has arisen from the ashes of the burning questions, the contemplations, the simplest musings. The poem that was never intended to be published or seen by any other eyes, entitled “The Last Letter”,  finally explains what Hughes felt when he heard of his estranged wife’s death. The first and only work where Hughes directly addresses Sylvia’s death:

What did happen that Sunday night? Your last night? Or what I remember of it.

Double exposed to my last sight of you. Burning your farewell letter to me, as if you had not meant it.

Yet with that strange smile, as if you had meant something different.

 Had it reached me sooner than you planned? Had you thought out a plan? If it had reached me Saturday morning- by then you would have vanished from me.

Behind those simple loving words on your farewell note… What happened that night, inside your thoughts? 

 It is unknown, as though it never happened.

What accumulation of your whole life, like effort unconscious, like birth.  Pushing through each slow second to the next, happened as only it could not happen…

And I had started to write when the telephone jerked awake, in jabbering alarm, remembering everything. It recovered in my hand. Then a voice like a selected weapon/ or a measured injection/ carefully delivered it’s four words deep into my ear. “Your wife is dead.”

–“The Last Letter”- Ted Hughes

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