28 October 2010

Mark Ford & New York Review of Books on "Last Letter"

Mark Ford at the New York Review of Books Blog examines "Ted Hughes' 'Last Letter'" to Sylvia Plath in a post today.

I like that Ford places "Last Letter" in context to where it might have appeared in Birthday Letters, by discussing it in connection with the poem that likely would have preceded it, "The Inscription."

It's an honor for Gail Crowther's guest post on the Daniel Huws event in Mytholmroyd to be cited and for the blog to be referenced.

15 comments :

Anonymous said...

Kudos to you and Gail! I don't think it's necessarily true that Last Letter was "clearly intended" to take it's place in Birthday Letters, per Mark Ford's article. The best we can say is that it is one of the poems he wrote about Sylvia, and there are likely more lurking about at Emory, etc. Also, I have read that the inscription in Ted's volume of Shakespeare was by Dido Merwin, not Assia - do you remember where this information came from, Peter? I admit, it makes more sense that Assia would have inscribed the book. As far as the 'dellarobbia' reference, I don't think it's meant to suggest that Alliston was a figure of 'sweetness and calm'. In Hughes intro to her book of poems he says she had "the baby beauty type of features", her eyes were slate blue and she had a face you did not forget. I would posit that the 'dellarobbia' description had more to do with her beautifully sculpted face and blue eyes (Andrea della Robbia was known for using an intense, blue glaze in his works), in addition to her manner of distictive dressing. In reading his description she does not come off as being 'sweet & calm' but more of a whirlwind, "whose taste for cosmopolitan experience" Hughes wrote "was almost a lust." From her journal entries, Susan seems to have not pushed strongly for a relationship with Hughes, so she may have been somewhat of a respite from the intensity of Sylvia. Finally, I've not read a reviewer who has mentioned this, but it was Assia who called Hughes to tell him that Sylvia was dead, per A Lover of Unreason. If that is indeed the case, it makes those last four lines even more troubling - "a voice like a selected weapon or a measured injection", "coolly delivered" - his lover, "coolly" informing him that his wife is dead. Kim

Peter K Steinberg said...

Kim, thanks! And thanks for such a good comment. No, I do not recall the where it was stated that Dido was the inscriber of the inscription, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was in Bitter Fame or in Merwin's memoir "Vessel of Wrath". The dellarobbia reference seems to be a hanging point for a lot of people, but you've written some really informed things and I hope they catch. I do still have to read the Alliston, so that I'm on the same page... Good on you for bringing up Lover of Unreason and Koren and Negev's statement that it was Assia that rang Ted up that morning with the tragic news.

pks

Anonymous said...

MOrning, Peter, I don't see any mention in "Bitter Fame" or in Dido's Appendix , "Vessel of Wrah" of who inscribed the Shakespeare volume. In fact, I was surprised to find that the incident is hardly mentioned at all in the body of the book and Dido's memoir reduces the act to 3 sentences -- no mention of the inscription. I'm a little surprised that the incident wasn't exploited more fully. If it had been inscribed by Assia, wouldn't that have been mentioned? If by Dido, would she want to downplay that fact? Just a thought. Jim Long

Anonymous said...

And another thing, Ford says 'we don’t know, and surely never will, if Plath really made numerous trips to the phone booth down the road to call Hughes the night she killed herself, as the penultimate verse of “Last Letter” imagines'. Well, let's look for some evidence shall we?!

In the biography of Sylvia Plath by Linda Wagner-Martin, the author quotes Plath's downstairs neighbour Professor Trevor Thomas as saying 'I could not sleep and I heard her walking to and fro on the wood floor'. This information (according to the endnotes) comes from a letter to Wagner Martin and Thomas's memoir of Plath. This detail of Plath's last night alive is reiterated in three other biographies of Plath (by Anne Stevenson, Ronald Hayman and Paul Alexander so from both pro-estate and anti-Hughes sources). Plath's various biographers seem to accept that Thomas was the last person to see Plath alive at 11.45 p.m. when she asked to buy some stamps from him. From his memoir, it seems that Thomas's relations with Plath and later Ted Hughes (when he moved into the flat with Assia Wevill) were rather strained due mostly to noise disturbance - see 'A Lover of Unreason' p.124 and Janet Malcolm's 'The Silent Woman'. Malcolm also records that Hughes initiated legal proceedings against Thomas for the latter's claims in the memoir (which were also reported in the press) that after Plath's death, there was a party in the flat.

Given the location of Thomas's flat off the main hallway of 23 Fitzroy Road, his chronicle of disturbances by first Plath and later Hughes as they come and go from the upstairs flat it seems unlikely that Plath went back and forth from her flat to the telephone box outside as this would surely have roused Thomas and he would have recorded it in his memoir or mentioned it in his conversations/letters with Plath's biographers. And given Thomas’s antipathy towards Ted Hughes (as detailed in Malcolm book) it seems unlikely that Thomas would have withheld this detail from his memoir or conversations (e.g. to protect Hughes in any way). So in my view, I think we have some evidence about the 'truth' of this section of the poem. Rather than a biographical detail, it seems a fitting metaphor for how Hughes cut himself off from emotional communication with Plath and as he says in his letter to friends in February 1963 'I was the one who could have helped her and the only one that couldn't see that she really needed it this time." Or in this case, chose not to hear. Ted Hughes didn't have much time for telephones, did he? e.g:

"Do not pick up the detonator of the telephone
A flame from the last day will come lashing out from the telephone
A dead body will fall out of the telephone"

I wonder how he would have coped with a mobile...

Cath

Peter K Steinberg said...

Cath, great comment. Wish I had my books about me! In reading your post I got to think that if some if Birthday Letters was written, as some think, around the time that Hughes was editing or reviewing or what have you Plath's Journals- then it might be possible Plath tracked her unproductive and empty visits to the phone box in the weeks leading up to her death. So this would represent condensation in the timeline for poetical or metaphorical ends. He certainly comes clean I think about the wilful negligence (in favor no doubt for negligée) of the last days.

Like many others around that time, Thomas was a victim of an almost unstoppable, bullish Hughes-machine. I touch on this in my soon to be posted review of Lucas Myers book An Essential Self. Those who had the most information on Plath's year (let's say) were the ones that were most publicly derided and discredited. There was a party in the flat, I recall reading Assia put it together to try to cheer Hughes up,, but what they really objected to was Thomas' clmain of bongo drums. Some of these article must be available on Google News Archive, however I can't verify this at the moment.

pks

Peter K Steinberg said...

Yes, there are a few articles in Google News Archive (but they are pay per view) on the Hughes lawsuit against Thomas from 1990. Hughes dropped the suit in December (Merry Christmas, Trevor). Though this case originally made news around November 1989, there do not appear to be any articles on the Google...Sorry to have taken the comments a bit away from the true topic...

pks

Anonymous said...

Hi all - good points all around. Jim, I'll look for that bit about Dido having written the inscription - I know it's somewhere in my pile of books and papers! It did catch my attention, because my (I think, logical) assumption was that Assia would have given the volume to Ted. Cath, I like your very detailed description. My own feeling is that imagining Plath calling him over and over, and he not answering, is guilt talking, not actual fact. I don't know how often Sylvia called Ted during their separation - i.e. what would have been a typical pattern for her, or if she would call Ted when she was especially depressed. But I can imagine the enormous guilt he would feel if, say, the phone rang a few times that night and (in that age of no answering machines or voicemail) he let it ring - only to find that she had killed herself that next morning. Thinking he may have prevented it, if only he had picked up the phone. His phone may have rung and it might have been someone else entirely (although if it were me, I'd be obsessively asking all my friends if they had called me that night - or maybe not, if I really didn't want to know one way or another). I used to wonder why he hated phones so much (as in the poem you quote) and now I guess I know. kim

Anonymous said...

OK, found the Dido/Inscription reference - it's by Lynda K Bundtzen in The Other Ariel: 'Hughes does not name the person who gave him a new Oxford Shakespeare, but the wound its inscription inflicts on Plath suggests that it came from either Assia Wevill or Dido Merwin, both considered rivals by Plath.' (note 26, p. 192).

Lynda also contributed these posts to the Sylvia Plath Forum on the same subject:

This is for Anna about Hughes's poem, "The Inscription." When Plath sees that "red Oxford Shakespeare / That she had ripped to rags . . . ," she knows that someone replaced it after she tore it up in a fit of jealousy. The incident is described in Bitter Fame, p. 206, and the source is Dido Merwin. When Plath opens up the new volume, she sees an inscription most probably from Dido, but maybe Assia Wevill, and the effect this has on her is devastating--a "fatal bullet" and, in some ways, a self-inflicted wound because she created the opportunity for another woman to give him this volume. Hughes would later write Anne Stevenson that he objects to the description of him--"Ted could neither forget nor forgive this desecration"--and asks Stevenson in a letter quoted by Janet Malcolm in The Silent Woman to change this because, "The truth is that I didn't hold that action against [Sylvia]--then or at any other time" (143) and he describes his efforts to persuade Dido to see Plath differently than she obviously does in that vituperative memoir, "Vessel of Wrath." My guess is that the new Shakespeare volume is from Dido, the inscription is from Dido, and the episode of Plath's discovery described in the poem only added more anguish to a situation that Hughes describes as torture for Plath, who is so torn that she does not know whether she wants him back or away.

Lynda Bundtzen
Williamstown, MA, USA
Saturday, August 25, 2001


Anna, I guess we will have to wait until Hughes's personal library goes up for sale before we know who replaced his copy of Shakespeare and made the inscription. The reason why I favor Dido Merwin over Assia Wevill is that she is the source cited for the biography in describing this incident and she seems to have been quite affected by it--really judgmental of Plath's jealous behavior and horrified that she would commit such a desecration of Shakespeare, no less, and Hughes's writings. I suppose it's possible that Assia found out about the incident, but I cannot imagine Hughes confiding in her in this way--it seems out of character. I also think Plath was suspicious of Dido, too, as a possible rival.

Lynda Bundtzen
Williamstown, MA, USA
Wednesday, August 29, 2001

Hie thee, someone, to Emory! Kim

Anonymous said...

OK, found the Dido/Inscription reference - it's by Lynda K Bundtzen in The Other Ariel: 'Hughes does not name the person who gave him a new Oxford Shakespeare, but the wound its inscription inflicts on Plath suggests that it came from either Assia Wevill or Dido Merwin, both considered rivals by Plath.' (note 26, p. 192).

Lynda also contributed these posts to the Sylvia Plath Forum on the same subject:

This is for Anna about Hughes's poem, "The Inscription." When Plath sees that "red Oxford Shakespeare / That she had ripped to rags . . . ," she knows that someone replaced it after she tore it up in a fit of jealousy. The incident is described in Bitter Fame, p. 206, and the source is Dido Merwin. When Plath opens up the new volume, she sees an inscription most probably from Dido, but maybe Assia Wevill, and the effect this has on her is devastating--a "fatal bullet" and, in some ways, a self-inflicted wound because she created the opportunity for another woman to give him this volume. Hughes would later write Anne Stevenson that he objects to the description of him--"Ted could neither forget nor forgive this desecration"--and asks Stevenson in a letter quoted by Janet Malcolm in The Silent Woman to change this because, "The truth is that I didn't hold that action against [Sylvia]--then or at any other time" (143) and he describes his efforts to persuade Dido to see Plath differently than she obviously does in that vituperative memoir, "Vessel of Wrath." My guess is that the new Shakespeare volume is from Dido, the inscription is from Dido, and the episode of Plath's discovery described in the poem only added more anguish to a situation that Hughes describes as torture for Plath, who is so torn that she does not know whether she wants him back or away.

Lynda Bundtzen
Williamstown, MA, USA
Saturday, August 25, 2001


Anna, I guess we will have to wait until Hughes's personal library goes up for sale before we know who replaced his copy of Shakespeare and made the inscription. The reason why I favor Dido Merwin over Assia Wevill is that she is the source cited for the biography in describing this incident and she seems to have been quite affected by it--really judgmental of Plath's jealous behavior and horrified that she would commit such a desecration of Shakespeare, no less, and Hughes's writings. I suppose it's possible that Assia found out about the incident, but I cannot imagine Hughes confiding in her in this way--it seems out of character. I also think Plath was suspicious of Dido, too, as a possible rival.

Lynda Bundtzen
Williamstown, MA, USA
Wednesday, August 29, 2001

Hie thee, someone, to Emory! Kim

Anonymous said...

Sorry about the double post, above...

In Kara Kilfoil's paper from "Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters: Annotations and Commentary"

The Inscription

"The setting of this poem is London in the winter of 1962-63; Hughes is addressing an event that took place just prior to Plath's death. Koren and Negev conclude that the date is Thursday, February 7 (Lover of Unreason 113). Jillian Becker's memoir of Plath's last days, Giving Up, also remembers this as the day Plath and her children moved into the Becker household for what became the final weekend of her life. Becker remembers Plath calling around 2 p.m., asking if she could "come round with the children" (2). When she arrived, she declared she felt "terrible," needed to "lie down," and later that she "would rather not go home" (2). Becker's memoir describes a distraught and depressed Plath unable to care for her children. If we assume Koren and Negev date Plath's visit to Hughes's apartment correctly, than her meeting with him, and her discovery of his Shakespeare volume, quite possibly set in motion a negative chain of events for which Hughes still feels responsible." Discussing how/when Plath may have sussed out Hughes' address in London Kilfoil cites our own Peter Steinberg:

"Steinberg also proposes that Plath may have obtained Hughes's address when staying with the Beckers which would support an argument for Plath's visit to Cleveland Street on February 9 (see annotation 74.1) as opposed to February 7."

So, some additional 'evidence' about where 'Last Letter' might fit into the BL sequence and also, the dates Hughes and Plath may have met during/before that weekend in February, 1963. Kim
PS Ok, I'll shut up now

Peter K Steinberg said...

Kim! I was going to email you privately to see what you did Friday night... ha.

Excellent work above! I was writing a comment to your comments and it kind of exploded into a very big comment, so I've decided not to post the comment, but will make it a separate blog post on "Last Letter", as some have asked me to do, sometime in November.

Thank you though to sleuthing about the internet and your books and papers to clear up the history of the Inscription.

I don't think Hughes' Shakespeare is in his library at Emory (yet). I say yet because I've often felt this to be something in the mysterious trunk.

As one of the first scholars to work with Hughes' papers at Emory, Diane Middlebrook, at a minimum, would've talked about this in Her Husband. Amanda Golden is at Emory so I'll ask her; failing this, perhaps we can write a letter to Carol Hughes to ask if she still has it?

There are 4,498 titles in the Emory catalog for "Ted Hughes Library". There are five titles if you search the above with the added word Shakespeare. None appear to be this Shakespeare in question.

pks

panther said...

Extraordinary that Dido Merwin should have condemned Sylvia's "jealous" behaviour. Sylvia was ,after all, married to Ted ! To use the word "jealous" is a terrible put-down, implying that she's a spoilt child stamping her foot.

Ted would have been tormented by the thought of "Did she telephone ? Could I have prevented what happened?" Quite likely for the rest of his life. This is one of the legacies that a suicide (almost invariably) leaves.

As for the rights and wrongs of his behaviour, i can only reiterate here that it is very, very difficult to be married or in close relation to someone who has long-term mental health issues. I write as someone who has been both such a person and at the receiving end of such a person. However patient you are, however much you want to help, however much you love the person, it is very difficult. Life-sapping, morale-sapping.

I daresay Ted convicted himself over all this a thousand times, whatever he writes or does not write in his poems. Why convict him further ?

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter - yes, I used to have a social life, I wonder what happened to it...

Looking forward to your post on Last Letter!

I tried to check Ted's library via the Emory site, but I can't seem to pull up his books at all (the ones he owned, not wrote). I think you're right, that particular volume is perhaps not just sitting on a shelf somewhere in the stacks..

Panther, I agree about the jealousy comment - but it strikes me that what Dido was describing was over the top jealousy and the behavior it engenders. I mean there is jealous and then there is JEALOUS. And curiously, it might exonerate Dido a bit - if you feel you are doing nothing wrong (i.e. you're not really interested in someone else's husband) any prolonged/repeated jealous behavior on the part of the other spouse is bound to strike you as excessive. Not that I agree with her overall assessment of Plath, just another way to try to understand how other people perceived Plath through their various, personal lenses.

I agree with your comments re: mental illness, too...... kim

PS the word verification for this post is "lespo" - change the "p" to a "b" and add an "s" and it must be a sign from Plath.... :-)

panther said...

Anonymous, absolutely with you on the over-the-top jealousy. Some of Plath's "jealousy" over the years was well-founded; some of it was not.

I think the film SYLVIA homed in on Plath's paranoia about Ted and other women rather too much, but this was undeniably PART of her behaviour over a long period of time. My frustration over the film was how it didn't seek to explore WHY SP had these abandonment issues. She'd lost her father, this hadn't been properly grieved over, etc. . .of course there were abandonment issues ! But this was hardly mentioned, thus giving the impression that she was "crazier" than was actually the case. Someone who is terribly afraid of being abandoned is going to be very anxious and,frankly, rather difficult to be around. It makes perfect sense to that person, and is founded in a very real experience of being abandoned, but to other people, people unaware of the background, it can just feel crazy.

Anonymous said...

It wasn't the films focus (pun) to try to figure out Plath's "abandonement issues." Save that for the psychologists (so I can just ignore it). Though I do agree with panther that "someone who is terribly afraid of being abandoned is going to be very anxious." The entire film was a just a wasted opportunity to present a good biopic of Plath; to which the Estate must be blamed for being uncooperative. Plath's "issues" really came to the front after her therapy sessions with Dr. Beuscher resumed in 1959 or whenever, and that has as much to do with planting the seeds of her paranoia and jealousy and fear of abandonement as anything else. It's probably wholly responsible for it and ruined Plath as a result. A lot of the psychologocial or psychoanalytical pigeon-holes Plath has been stuffed into didn't exist when she was alive, like feminism as well, and therefore must not be seriously considered.

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