08 October 2010

The Independent on "Last Letter"

The Independent's Cahal Milmo writes "The Ted Hughes lost poem: Who wants to live forever?"

This is almost a moralistic "high road" piece of journalism which calls into question to appropriateness of publishing unpublished or unfinished works by dead authors from their archives or estates.

However, the article concludes on a note of support I completely agree with by Anthony Thwaite who says, "There is always a difficult judgment to be made in these cases. In the case of Ted Hughes, if Carol Hughes has said that it is time for this poem to be published then that is right and we should be happy about it."

I couldn't agree more.

The article includes links to other related articles such as John Walsh's "Hughes's inner turmoil laid bare" and the Independent's "leading article" "Shock of the new." Walsh's article leaves me wanting; he simply misreads the poems or has misread accounts in memoirs and biographies about Plath's weekend. Granted the weekend is riddled with unknowns, but most can identify where Walsh veers off course. He exaggerates slightly that Plath's suicide was "long planned and anticipated" because a weekend to think about it, I do not think, counts as something "long planned."

What it does show is that something possible catastrophic (see there I go exaggerating, it's contagious watch out) occurred between 5 and 7 February. But I actually believe that whatever happened was catastrophic to her. That Plath went to the Becker's for assistance. That Plath possibly then considered commiting suicide on Friday 8 February (ensuring her children would be safe with the Beckers). That she didn't. But that on Monday morning 11 February she did.

Clearly there is more to be discovered from this poem and from other sources yet unknown and possibly from works that have been completed. How's that for a vague conclusion!

17 comments :

Julia said...

Vague? Maybe. But it's the most accurate summary of events to date, I think.

Jenny said...

Peter, I would be interested in reading a post from you that goes into detail about what is known of Plath's last days and compares it to the information in the poem. I'm always interested to hear your take on things. :)

Jenny said...

I meant to add also--I am so tired of seemingly every article about Plath and Hughes mentioning "the vandals who routinely chisel Hughes's name off Plath's gravestone" (from the Walsh piece).

Do you have any information on how long ago that actually happened? My understanding, partially based on your earlier posts, is that this doesn't really go on anymore, but it would be nice to have a date.

Wouldn't it be nice to live in a world where newspapers stopped rehashing old, outdated articles?

Peter K Steinberg said...

Hi Jenny, I could certainly try to write up an article that gave as much information as I can find out about those last days. It may take a bit of time, need to be careful and thoughtful obviously because it is so charged a thing.

The last time the gravestone issue was really in the newspapers was back in 1989, April of. If you Google News Archive search, you can find a number of them. In Rough Magic (1991), Paul Alexander even has a photograph of the site with no granite marker, just a small wooden cross. And Ann Skea has an image of the de-Hughes'd stone: http://ann.skea.com/Grave1.jpg.

Some of the controversy I think is regurgitated of seeming necessity. I don't like it either but I sadly am just resolved to the fact that I'm going to have to keep reading about it.

I understand, I think, why people wanted to do this but I've always felt it to be disrespectful to the modest monument that represents the memorial to Plath.

And as for the Hughes being on the gravestone in the first place, I know this'll ruffle some feathers, but her legal name was Sylvia Plath Hughes. And even the last known letters she mailed (on 4 February 1963 to her mother, Marcia Brown Stern, and likely one or two others) the name on the return/senders address reads Sylvia Hughes.

pks

panther said...

My own feeling about chiselling names off graves is this : it shows a disrespect for the dead and a callousness about the feelings of the living. And as you point out, Peter, in this case SP herself often referred to herself as "Sylvia Plath Hughes."

It's a bit sad some people seem to have nothing else to do.

Anna said...

Couldn't agree more!

Anonymous said...

Hi all, I'm re-reading Jillian Becker's 'Giving Up' her account of SP's last weekend, which she primarily spent at the Becker's home. Right I away, I noticed she says that Sylvia called her and asked to come over with the children around 2PM on Thursday (presumably Feb 7); after some time at Jillian's home, SP tells her she doesn't want to return to Fitzroy Road and asks Jillian to fetch some things from the flat for her, which Jillian does. Jillian goes on to say that she gave SP her meds, the talked until very early in the morning, the whole next day SP follows Jillian around the house while Jillian cares for F and N and then Jillian cuts to "on the Saturday evening..." SP goes out, dressed up. So, Jillian must mis-remember the date SP came over and spent the night - if we accept the Thursday date from the book, SP couldn't have been home on Friday for TH to have seen her at Fitzroy Road. SP must have gone to the Beckers on Friday, not Thursday, if TH is correct with his dates (and it seems he would be, as he mentions the "2 days of dangling nothing"that occured) So, where did SP go on Saturday night and whom did she see, if not Ted? Jillian writes that when SP returned - Jillian does not remember when she came back - she acted as if something had been settled. She was at brunch with the Becker's on Sunday and then she returned to Fitzroy road on Sunday with the children. Mystery continues........ kim

Anonymous said...

Re: John Walsh's article. If he knew that Plath had spent her last few days with the Beckers he might have realized that Ted's lines about "one hour later you would have been gone" do not necessarily mean that she would have killed herself on Friday or Saturday, merely that she would have been at the Becker's and he would not have known where she was during the weekend after receiving her letter, fearly the worst. And no where does the poem imply that Hughes was in Yorkshire - he was living in London at the time. Also, where does Walsh come up with SP committing suicide at 4:30AM? As I read the poem, it doesn't seem as if Hughes feared she never called him - rather, he expresses remorse that she may have been calling him at his flat, over and over, receiving no answer, as he stayed with Susan in Rugby street, rather than at home, where Sylvia may have turned up, her weekend over. Just my 5 cents.... kim

Anonymous said...

OK, this is what happens when you stay up too late, nursing your week long bad cold with sake....anyway, the initial drafts of the poem begin "what happened that Saturday night?" but in the final version become "what happened that night? Your final night?" Plath's final night was Sunday, not Saturday, technically. Later Hughes recounts that he sped through the twilight of London on Friday - so, how would Sylvia be at home on Friday evening when she was supposedly at the Becker's? After thinking that when she went out on Saturday, she couldn't have met with Hughes, I wondered if she met Assia-but surely Assia would have told Hughes this(wouldn't she have?) so why would he wonder what happened that Saturday night?

My brain is curdling, please help....kim

Peter K Steinberg said...

Kim, Feel better... you little slice of sunshine on my cloudy day.

Thanks for staying up and doing all this work! Becker's memoir sadly to me is suspect and its only because of the time that passed.

Every thing I've ever read confirms an arrival at Mountfort Crescent on Thursday 7 February. Apparently Plath did go out Saturday night but with whom and to where is a mystery I think. I'd have to re-check all the books still and some of my notes but really, if you stop to think about it, the trail of Sylvia Plath goes cold virtually cold after she wrote "Edge" and "Balloons" on 5 February. For a woman whose details are so well known!

We cannot account for what she may have done later on the 5th, presuming those two poems were written in the early morning before "the babes" woke. We have no knowledge of her actions on the 6th, either. And we have no clue what she did the morning of the 7the before presumably ringing up the Becker's.

And we have really only Becker's testimony in her memoir and what was written up in Plath's biographies to go by. I'm really struggling to read and make sense of "Last Letter" because I want to add it to the mix so to speak but it seems in some ways less trustworthy than a memoir written circa 40 years later.

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter - it always makes me happy to bring sunshine to your day :-) What about her calendar, now housed at Smith (?) - did it cover those dates? Although if you are that distraught, perhaps you don't bother writing things in your calendar book...

I think the 'new' poem, like most of his work, is deceptively simple. We know Hughes changes real details in his poems (we've seen it in Birthday Letters)to suit some purpose of his (cabala, alchemy, helaing energies, somemore mundane reason, etc)so it's possible that the memoir is correct and his 'claim' that he saw Plath on Friday is incorrect. But that doesn't seem right to me either, knowing the basic timeline of her last days. I'm a bit stumped, but will plug along.....kim

Julia said...

Kudos to Kim for all this great sleuthing! It's dizzying, isn't it?

Anna said...

But we are forgetting one thing. Hughes read Sylvia's last diary entries, before destroying & "losing" them. Is it not possible that he knew MORE from them (than anyone else does) and used it in the poem?

Another thing is, I don't remember where I read it, but I remember very vaguely (or maybe I made it up??) that I read somewhere that he was hard to catch, when he was about to get informed of Sylvia's death? I'm not sure, but I think I read somewhere that someone called him at home, but he wasn't there... hmmm... or am I confusing something now? And then, when they finally rached him, he was at someone's house? Please correct me, if I'm wrong, because I'm not sure that I really read it somewhere?? ;)

Christy said...

Very excellent point, Anna, that TH had a chance to read the last diaries before he destroyed them. Perhaps he knew from an entry that she tried and tried to call on her last night.

Has anyhone else gone back and read "18 Rugby Street" from Birthday Letters since reading Last Letter? They are in dialog with one another and it's interesting to see them juxtaposed:

(hopefully a short enough excerpt to qualify for "fair use", Peter, please feel free to remove if necessary):

Whatever I was thinking I was not thinking/ Of that Belgian girl in the ground-floor flat,/ Plump as a mjushroom, hair black as boot polish:/...

He later goes on:
That girl had nothing to do with the rest of the house/ But play her part in the drama. Her house-jailor/ Who kept her in solitary was a demon/ High-explosive black, insane Alsatian/...

Then he describes the Belgan's suicide (mentioned also in Last Letter) seven years hence.

After describing the girl with the Alsatian, Susan is mentioned for the first time:

She was nothing to do with me. Nor was Susan /Who still had to be caught in the labyrinth. /And who would meet the Mintaur there, /And who would be holding me from my telephone/ Those nights you would need me

The poem then goes on to mention Susan's pacing while dying of leukemia ten years hence, three years after Plath's death.

Christy said...

One thing that is odd is the timing of events in the poem. In Last Letter (Helen, with the crazy dog) gassed herself and the dog "days later". In 18 Rugby Street it's 7 years later.

Susan died in 1969. In 18 Rugby she is "Crying alone and dying of Leukemia" 10 years after the events of 18 Rugby three of them with Syliva in her grave (1966). In Last Letter she is taken from the bed at 18 Rugby Street to die at the hospital within three years of Sylvia's death.

I suppose Susan could have lingered for several years in and out of the hospital before dying, but it seems strange that in both poems, Hughes mentions talks about three years after Plath's death when her actual death occurred six years later - the year of Assia's.

Anonymous said...

FRom Inpress Book
Susan Alliston

Susan Alliston was born and educated in England. In 1960 she moved with her husband to Tunisia, returning to London in 1962. At first a secretary and later a reader for Faber & Faber and Penguin Books, she was friendly with
a number of writers who met at the Lamb pub in Holborn. Among them was Ted Hughes. He encouraged her writing, and her journals cast light on aspects of his life and work. Susan Alliston died in 1969

Info about her on the Sylvia Plath forum (2007)
also from Ann Skea and the 2nd St Botolph's Review http://ann.skea.com/SBR2.htm

suki

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thank you for posting this information on Alliston, Suki!

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