Even after all this time, I'm still digesting "Last Letter" but finding it easier to read now that the hoopla has died down a bit. The news stories on its publications were just atrocious and sometimes it is hard to shake initial feeds, impressions, reports, and rushed judgments. As a result, though, what was reported has to be discredited largely, and ignored & forgotten. Looking back to those long gone halcyon days of early-to-mid October 2010 and those news stories ... I can't read them anymore. They, in fact, they quite privately bore me...(in those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival). I'd like to see the manuscripts of the poems, all of them. Hughes's handwriting is difficult at best, but a little time with them and I think much more could be known about the poem. That being said, this post isn't looking at the whole poem, but just a little bit of it.
First, though, with this archive of material now available, this term Birthday Letters now means much more than the collection that was eventually published. In typical Steinbergian fashion I cannot and do not look at the poems in Birthday Letters as poems, but I will try to untangle some of the real events that may have inspired and informed the poem.
I learned when Birthday Letters was published not to spout out as I still waver a bit on how I receive and interpret those poems and that book. Some have said the poem “Last Letter” doesn't fit: true, it feels unfinished and raw in some ways, but I don't know if that is because I was told it was unfinished or if its exclusion from Birthday Letters (and/or Howls & Whispers) makes it so. I do not have either collection memorized, but I do not recall Hughes coming as close to finding himself guilty, his behavior reprehensible - or pronouncing himself indeed as guilty - of something as he does in "Last Letter."
If "Last Letter" is "true," and Plath threatened to kill herself via letter on 8 February 1963, Hughes may be seen to be even more culpable of negligence than before. Cath rightly points out in a comment in this post, Hughes wrote to some 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." I'm troubled by the qualifying "this time" but I think it is deeply meaningful; that Hughes had seen this before, had experienced Plath to a degree at this nadir, and that he had trouble differentiating this cry for help from others
This got me thinking about the possibility of an actual "Last Letter." Obviously, if there was one - and if the poem is to be believed as relating something that did happen - Plath burned it. What might it have said? Something strong enough to force Hughes to dash (not from Yorkshire as Walsh would have you believe) but from his flat at 110 Cleveland Street to 23 Fitzroy Road (driving about 2.1 miles; walking 1.5 miles).
In the poem, Hughes writes, "—-off the ashtray / Against which you would lean for me to read / The Doctor’s phone-number." All reports indicate that Plath pinned or taped her - for lack of a better word - suicide note to "PLEASE CALL / DR. HORDER..." on the perambulator which she usually left in the hallway (much to her downstairs neighbor, Trevor Thomas’, dismay). Did she leave two notes? This seems unlikely unless what she left propped on the ashtray for Hughes to read was an actual letter and not a secondary note to call the doctor at the time of her death (let the speculation begin!). So this is an instance where Hughes is likely misremembering or taking some poetic liberties or both: it's neat this way, the note is placed in the exact spot where she burned her “last letter.” It's as neat and tidy as suggesting "Edge" is her last poem when it very well could have been “Balloons”. Speaking of “Edge”, I wonder if, as Plath burned the last letter, the “strange smile” she was wearing is taken from the perfected woman’s “smile of accomplishment”, if the smiles are one and the same?
The eight lines commencing "My escape / Had become such a hunted thing" I read two ways: First, Hughes' escape from the marriage; that Plath was literally hunting for him; to find where her husband was living. Second, and actually perhaps related, is that once Hughes left her presence he felt like the prey to Plath's predator. For example, did Plath stealthily follow him to Cleveland Street and return there the following day?
A surprise visit by Plath to Cleveland Street on the 8th or 9th of February (or perhaps before this date), I think, lends support to Hughes wanting to not sleep there during the weekend of 8-10 February, or at least explains his motivation to not be at his flat. In a comment by Kim also in the above mentioned post as Cath's, she pointed out something I said in Kara Kilfoil's annotation of "The Inscription" (published in Plath Profiles 3). I proposed "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."
Now, without a doubt, I believe Plath obtained Ted Hughes' address and telephone number at different times. Here's why... In her address book, now held in the Plath Collection at Smith College, Hughes’ name and address are in a different color ink (blue) than the phone number (black). Black ink was usually the color Plath used to enter information in her address book. I suggested what I suggested to Kara based on the different color inks. Blue isn't too unusual in the address book; however, it is not the norm. The black ink appears to be the same ink that she wrote her poems in and which she used to sign letters, etc. So, this suggests she obtained Hughes' telephone number whilst she was at her own flat in Fitzroy Road, maybe even from Hughes himself on a January visit. The blue ink is more typical ballpoint pen (or biro, as they are called in England) and I think must be the kind of pen she kept in her purse. It is a small detail but a very important one. The fact is we do not know when she obtained either Hughes’ number or his address; what we do know is that in a letter to Olive Higgins Prouty written on 22 January 1963, Plath wrote that she knew he was living in Soho. But we cannot know if Plath knew where in Soho the flat was.
Hughes later writes in the poem, "that [Friday] night ... I moved / With the circumspection / Of a flame in a fuse." This supports that he felt followed, hunted; he continues, "I raced / From and from, face backwards, a film reversed." So after he "saved" Plath that Friday night he went to Susan's flat at Rugby Street, where he would return for Sunday night repeat performance! Hughes writes that he goes back to Rugby Street because at Cleveland Street "You might appear—-a surprise visitation." He was either paranoid or this had happened before and later he admits “So I stayed with Susan, hiding from you.”
The reference to Susan as "dellarobbia" has sparked some confusion over the choice of word, myself included. I like Kim's point from the comments to the aforementioned post. However if we look at the words individually, della means "of”; and robbia, “madder". Of madder. Madder is defined as "a Eurasian herb (Rubia tinctorum of the family Rubiaceae, the madder family) with whorled leaves and small yellowish panicled flowers succeeded by dark berries; broadly: any of several related herbs (genus Rubia); 2a: the root of the Eurasian madder used formerly in dyeing; also : an alizarin dye prepared from it; b: a moderate to strong red."
I see this connecting to the previous lines above where Hughes goes on about the his “love-life” and its "mad needles." Someone suggested that the two mad needles were Assia and Susan; I think this makes sense as Plath cannot really be considered to have been, at this point at any rate, any part of Hughes' “love-life”, right? The image of "red" appears throughout the poem in words like “rose" and "bloody." Even "inside my own skin," "emblazon," and “fury” connote redness, something vibrant, brilliantly colored. Lastly (or firstly in the poem) Plath’s locked door, Hughes says, is red. Red is a very Plathian color and I should not have any need to cite examples from her work. Red also is a mythic color throughout Birthday Letters; the final poem was titled “Red.” In “Red” Hughes acknowledges Plath’s preference for that color, but he thinks “blue was better for your...was your kindly spirit” (BL 198). So in Hughes’ color-coded scheme for his women, Plath was blue, Alliston was red. (What of Assia Wevill? Brenda? Jill? Emma?) Can’t you just picture the official Ted Hughes limited edition Crayola box!
In the penultimate stanza, Hughes writes, " I count / How often you walked to the phone-booth / At the bottom of St George’s terrace [sic]." This has to be a memory from the lost or destroyed journals or if she had a 1963 tablet calendar like her 1962 Royal Lett’s, perhaps she made notes on that? Perhaps she ticked them off as a prisoner might do in a jail cell to mark the passing days. I do think Hughes here is story-telling that Plath made so many trips to the phone box on her last night: 'Before midnight. After midnight. Again. / Again. Again. And, near dawn, again." As Cath again has rightly pointed out, Trevor Thomas says, "I could not sleep and I heard her walking to and fro on the wood floor." It has long been said that Plath was pacing the floors. Had she been traveling up and down the stairs and in and out of the door, Thomas would likely have been altered to this and deeply bothered. He would certainly have approached her. (At least, his portrayal as an intolerant, fussy old man would have us believe he would have.) It is not likely Plath left her flat that night for several reasons, the leading reason is that the letters for which she bought stamps were not actually mailed. Thomas reported that she seemed drugged, so we can be reasonably assured Plath took her sleeping pills and maybe even her "wake-up" pills. Anne Stevenson and others report that Dr. John Horder visited Plath Sunday evening, too. (How Horder knew she was back at her flat is certainly a question worth pondering. My best guess is that the Becker’s called him? Perhaps Horder “administered” her sleeping pills as Becker had done the few previous nights?) By the morning of the 11th, she was at least clear enough in mind to protect her children from the gas (also, I think she would not have left the children alone in the flat at night for repeated visits to the phone box).
All this said, what of this "Last Letter"? It is possible that Hughes might have leaked some of the contents of an actual “Last Letter” to Aurelia Plath (should one have existed in the first place). In Hughes’ first letter to Mrs. Plath after Sylvia Plath's death, dated March 1963, he writes, "The particular conditions of our marriage, the marriage of two people so openly under the control of deep psychic abnormalities as both of us were, meant that we finally reduced each other to a state where our actions and normal states of mind were like madness. My attempt to correct that marriage is madness from start to finish. The way she reacted to my actions also has all the appearance of a kind of madness -- her insistence on a divorce, the one thing in the world she did not want, the proud hostility and hatred, the malevolent acts, that she showed to me, when all she wanted to say simply was that if I didn't go back to her she could not live...” (emphasis mine)"
Plath said it best in some excised lines from “Nick and the Candlestick”, “I leave you the mystery.”
N.B. The publication of “Last Letter” and the opening of the archive at the British Library will go a long way to unlocking Ted Hughes’ process of creating Birthday Letters; into the decisions that went into completing and selecting some poems, and the opposite, excluding other poems. Though I do not think that it was not acknowledged in news stories at the time, some Hughes scholars have known about the poem for years. And, hints about “Last Letter” had been available online for at least 11 months prior to the poems publication in the New Statesman. In an essay by Roy Davids called “The Making of Birthday Letters” the draft/variant first line of “Last Letter” “What did happen on that Sunday night?” appears in a list of first lines and titles of poems of Ted Hughes archive that he had worked with well before it sold to the British Library.
Davids wrote the essay between 2007 and 2009 and it can be read on his website here, and with slightly different text on on Claas Kazzar’s wonderful ted-hughes.info here (published circa 12 November 2009). Other first lines are tantalizingly provocative, such as 'The last I had seen of you was you burning / Your last farewell note...' which may be another part/draft/version of “Last Letter” or indeed another poem altogether; and 'You never meant it. In your novel...' Meant what? Which novel!?
If I had any desire to travel to London to see this stuff first hand it has now been magnified thanks to Davids’ wonderful essay which provides a rather deep glimpse into the archive.
Publications & Acknowledgements
- BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
- Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
- Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
- Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
- Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
- Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
- Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
- Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
- Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
- Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
- Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
- Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
- Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
- Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
- Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
- Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
- Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. 2000. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books. (Acknowledged in)
- Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
- Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
- Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
- "Banking on his passion for Plath" by Melissa Davis Haller. UMW Today. Spring 2005.
- "Sylvia Plath's Three Women to be staged in London" by Alison Flood. The Guardian. 3 December 2008.
- "FBI files on Sylvia Plath's father shed new light on poet" by Dalya Alberge. The Guardian. 17 August 2012.
- "There Are Almost No Obituaries for Sylvia Plath" by Ashley Fetters. The Atlantic. 11 February 2013.