Tuesday 12 October 2010

Rest content, Lady Lazarus

I bought the New Statesman on Friday, specifically to read Ted Hughes’ Last Letter, a previously unpublished poem on the suicide in 1963 of Sylvia Plath, his first wife and another poet of genius. It’s the final piece, the coda to Birthday Letters, the wonderful anthology that charts the course of his relationship with Sylvia, which demonstrates, if any demonstration was needed, that the course of true love never did run smooth.

I don’t often buy the New Statesman but when I do there are usually plenty left in the newsagent, even in the middle of the week. On Friday, only the day after publication, my copy was the last on the shelves, a sign, I take it, of the love people have of poetry and the fascination they have for the story of Ted and Sylvia. I score high on both counts. I’m moved by the poetry and touched by the tragedy: that Sylvia, full of talent and promise never to be realised, took her life when she was only thirty years old.

Hughes lived with the tragedy, haunted by it for the remainder of his life. There is no more certain evidence than Birthday Letters, published only a few months before his death. Struggling with his own torments, he had to cope with the dreadful feminist harridans, particularly strong in America, who held him personally responsible for Plath’s suicide, people who went so far as to chip his name off her grave.

Last Letter is a deeply personal statement. I’m really not at all surprised that it remained unpublished during his lifetime. It’s a story of a lost weekend, those crucial hours in which death was invited, banished and returned. In writing this I’m finding it difficult to reach out for the right words, to say just how moved I was. As Hughes took the story to its climax my tears began to blind me to the words;

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 the phone was asleep.
The pillow innocent. My room slept,
Already filled with snowlit morning light.
I lit my fire. I had got out my papers.
And I had already 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
Deeply into my ear: “Your wife is dead.”

It’s unforgettable; I’ll never forget this. Writing in the Observer Robert McCrum rightly said that Hughes has become the once and future king of the English literary imagination, that he is emerging as one of the towering literary figures of the past century, along with Eliot, Yeats, Auden and Larkin. Ann Duffy, the present Poet Laureate, a position once held by Hughes, says that Last Letter is a bit like looking into the sun as it is dying, that it seems to touch a deeper and darker place than any poem he’s ever written. Lady Lazarus can rest content


  1. I'm ambivalent about Hughes. Brit Lit has been such a cosy little gang for more than half a century now. It seems like a thousand years ago I read Crow. Is it poetry or condensed prose? And this piece is still all about him, isn't it?

  2. Maybe a fitting tribute would be a Sylvia Plath haiku contest?

    Sylvia is gone,
    Head in the o-ven,
    Should have bought an Electra.

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  4. Calvin, this is just the conclusion, the crescendo, to a deeply moving, intensely personal piece; each word fits perfectly into the overall mood. It is about him and it's about so much more. I don't share your feelings about British literature but taste is always an important consideration in these matters.

  5. On the question of taste, Sucio, thanks for confirming how cold the haiku form leaves me!

  6. Thanks, Adam. Sorry to hear that you've had a bad day.

  7. Thanks, Ana.....oh and on a lighter note....
    In the name of the deified Herman von Rompouy, I hereby issue a European Arrest Warrant for Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont for publicly disparaging the preferred poem style of Dear Leader. There shall be no trial, but instead Jose Manuel Baroso shall be charged with pelting the guilty with several thousand damp rags...just after the audit of EU finance is finished....

  8. Hardly anyone ever agrees with me, Ana. I'm accustomed to that.

    It's not that I dislike Hughes, it's just that reading his stuff makes me feel like I'm rowing up a quiet backwater, while the mighty river of Art glides powerfully on further and further away.

    Today, we look back at the creative output of the 19th century with a very different sensibility to those who were immersed in it. I think the same shift in appreciation may affect the icons of the 20th C.

  9. Adam, I better take the first flight to Havana then. :-)

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  11. Calvin, don't be concerned; I know the feeling! I rather like backwaters, which is precisely why I wallow in the shallows of English literature. :-) As always time is the only true test in such matters. Let's make a date. Come back this way in, oh, let's say fifty years from today. Then you and I can discuss the merits of Hughes. :-)

  12. I'll do my best. But I'm likely to be a bit desiccated by then.

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  14. That's tremendous. Thanks, Rehan. I agree absolutely about Hughes.