12 December 2010

On Sylvia Plath's "Last Letter" by Ted Hughes

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.

12 comments :

magiciansgirl said...

Excellent work, Peter.

Re: SP not being part of Hughes' love life, it may be that they were not sleeping together, but did he not say that he had canceled all his appointments and was going to ask her to go away with him the next week, (in a letter to Aurelia, I believe) and furthermore, he says that he told Sylvia they would be back together again by the spring/summer. So SP was, in essence, a part of his love life. Still, this doesn't mean that he was not writing about Assia and Susan as the two women, although I would suggest that Assia and Sylvia were the two most important women in his life at that time. The relationship with Alliston seemed less serious.

I like your analysis of "della Robbia" but I'm not entirely sure I agree - I still think of della Robbia as blue, but that's my art history degree talking..... in any case, I'm not clear on why Susan would be 'red' and Sylvia 'blue' in Ted's color coded scheme for his women. What would it mean, in terms of his poetry, that Susan was 'red'?

"I was the one who could have helped her and the only one that couldn't see that she really needed it this time." What I find troubling about this quote is that Ted said almost the exact same thing about Assia's suicide, 6 years later. Per ‘A Lover of Unreason’ "he was certain that on that doomed Sunday it was in his power to stop Assia from killing herself, had he 'only given her hope in slightly more emphastic (sic) words'....With regard to both Sylvia and Assia, he seems to have not known (or claims to have not known) just how bad things were with each woman, despite the fact that both were depressed and both of them had talked suicide or attempted suicide previously.

How could he have been so blind, with such tragic consequences, twice over? Did he think history would not repeat itself with Assia, that it would be too far fetched for the scenario to happen again? Is this why Ted seems to believe in "fate" to a large extent?

To be fair, if someone is consistently depressed and “acting out” in a particularly intense way after disagreements, it would be difficult to know just when the straw would bludgeon the camel to death. In reference to Assia, Ted said that they had argued like that (their last phone call) many times before and that he did not think the last call any different than the phone calls that had come before it. Perhaps he felt the same about Sylvia - that she had signaled her distress and desperation so many times before that he did not know to take her seriously in February 1963.

Brenda Hedden, quoted in A Lover of Unreason said of Ted that "he had a way of undermining the women he loved. He could write love letters, and in the same breath, had a way of eroding your self-esteem, your self-assurance, and your confidence in the relationship." For all his many gifts and good qualities, it seems that Hughes had an enormous blind spot when it came to the woman in his life and his love affairs. Whether or not it was self absorption or an inability to understand the way women feel and think, or a combination of the two, or something else entirely, I suppose we'll never really know. kim

Peter K Steinberg said...

Kim, thanks for your very good comment. Given the near redundancy of Hughes' comments after both the death of his wife and that of his mistress, I distrust his sincerity and believability that he had canceled his appointments, and that he was going to ask her to go away the next week. I have no doubt he was hurt and felt that hurt deeply; he probably didn't suspect his "private" comments would be made public, though, which could account for said the similarity of statements? And that he told SP that they'd be back together by the spring or summer absolutely stinks to me of someone saying something to calm someone down.

Yes, in my view Susan would be associated with red, as can be concluded based on one definition of robbia being "a moderate to strong red". There are probably many ways to read "della robbia", I was merely offering something that hadn't been mentioned to my knowledge. And having what I see as a pet name - such "My dellarobbia Susan" - betrays a sort of an intimacy beyond casual, but I might be too literal... which is nothing new.

pks

Kristina Zimbakova said...

Peter,I really like 'The Detective' work you have done concerning the blue and black colours of Plath's ink as regards Hughes' phone number.
And now let's have some fun: robbia in Macedonian (and I think in a number of Slavic languages) is a common word meaning 'imprisonment', particularly a long one. Still, I agree with Kim that Susan seemed to be in less serious, fleeting relationship with Hughes; far from being imprisoned by her, but maybe at that moment capturing his attention.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Kristina! That is fun. I like this Macedonian meaning of robbia; as though Susan could have been his jailer. And this has connections to Helen and the Minotaur that appear later in the stanza & the following one.

pks

magiciansgirl said...

Hi Peter - you're astute to point out that TH's comments to SP seem like something he said to calm her down without pushing her over the edge until he figured out what he was going to do. By February 1963 Assia was pregnant (do you remember when he was said to have told SP they'd be together in the spring/summer? Was that only reported in the letter he sent to Aurelia?)so he may have been hedging his bets at that point. I'm guessing that if he was truly 'finished' with his relationship with SP he would have simply said so, but he may have thought that if he was that straight with her, she might do something drastic. Which she ended up doing anyway. After Assia's suicide, he said that the situation with SP happened because of his insane decisions and the situation with Assia happened because of his insane indecisions. He really doesn't seem to be a man who could manage his romantic relationships very well, does he?

Certainly his relationship with Susan was intimate, but I don't think he was seriously pursuing a future with her, which she seems to have known herself. Perhaps there are more clues to 'della Robbia' in other letters or texts of some kind, and perhaps we're placing too much emphasis on it, who knows. My comment on why is Susan "red" is not a critique of your theory, I am just wondering what the significance of it might be, poetically.

I think his similarity of statements about SP and AW show that he didn't learn very much in those 6 years between suicides, as to how to manage his relationships. But then, we all have blind spots. What a mess all around, really. kim

panther said...

I don't think that leaving again after seeing SP burn the note makes TH more culpable. It's possible, as others have said, that this kind of thing had happened before and that it was difficult to judge. In fact, more than possible : probable. . .

And isn't it also possible that he saw her burn the letter, received some reassurances and actually felt that a crisis had been resolved ? At least, for the meantime.

It's easy to think that all would have been well if he'd just thrown in the affairs with the other women at that point, at that very moment, and gone home to Sylvia. Her depression would have lifted, she'd have welcomed him back,there would have been no suicide. But I think she said herself in those last desperate months that her trust in him had gone, her belief in him. How could that ever have been mended ?

And let's not forget that there was a very strong and negative element in the Plath-Hughes marriage long before Assia Wevill showed up : Sylvia's underlying mental instability.This pre-dated the affair, pre-dated her relationship with Hughes, pre-dated her arrival in England. She was not well. Hughes married someone who was, essentially, not well. For all her joy at meeting him, for all her creativity, for all her good days and her many enthusiasms. I don't see how his going back to her in February 1963 would have changed that.

magiciansgirl said...

Panther, I sgree with all your points. It also seems to me that Ted may have felt more culpable regarding Assia's death than Sylvia's - as he said, Sylvia was "on 'that path' all her life", which was not necessarily true of Assia, although she had her own problems. Whether or not it's true that Sylvia would have taken her own life eventually had she and Ted remained together, it appears Ted thought it possible/probable. Whereas if he had remained with Assia (and had been faithful? And had treated Shura as his own daughter?), she might not have taken her own life. But at that point (1962-63), he had obviously taken the highway to Infidelity Land whence, no matter whom the woman, he would never return....one has to wonder if so many entanglements with women ever really made him happy. It appears not.

panther said...

Have to agree with the point that Hughes had, for all his good qualities, an extraordinary blind spot with women. An emotional ineptitude. I'm thinking of how (this described in A Lover of Unreason) he made that list out for Assia, DEMANDING that she regularly introduce new recipes, DEMANDING that she teach his children German, etc. I think I know what I personally would do if someone (anyone) gave me a list like that. . .And his failure to acknowledge Shura as his daughter smacks of hypocrisy. Deep down, I think he was a Puritan. His father refused to sit and eat at the same table as Assia, and wouldn't even look at her, on account of her adultery. By the same token, and if logic had anything to do with it, he should also have refused to sit down at the same table with TH. This is the kind of environment Hughes grew up in. A dour, cold, blame-the-woman environment.

Contrast with Robert Burns in the late 18th century, in Calvinistic Scotland, writing a beautiful love-poem for his illegitimate daughter on the occasion of her birth, a poem which welcomes her and, in doing so, tells disapproving society what it can do with its crippling so-called morality. A morality which is often nothing more than putting on a respectable facade.

Anonymous said...

Hi - sorry if this has been mentioned - in the introduction to Susan Alliston's poetry, Ted Hughes describes her as follows: 'She was tall, and seemed pale, with a shoulder-length dense mane of slightly crinkly hair the colour and seemingly almost the texture of that dark-bronzed fine wire on electrical transformers. It stuck out thickly like the mane on an ancient Egyptian figure'.
Despite being B&W the photo of Alliston on the front of book indicates her red hair and pale skin - so this could be (pathetically literal I know, sorry!) the reference to 'della robbia' - red hair and skin like china?
Cath

magiciansgirl said...

Cath, yes it's possible - many Madonnas or saints in Italian art are depicted as blue eyed, fair skinned and with pale or reddish blonde hair. However all the della Robbias were sculptors - Luca, Andrea and Giovanni - and their work would not have evidenced this typical Italian Renaissance color scheme. It may also be that 'dellarobbia' (Hughes runs the two words together) was some sort of an inside reference between the Hughes and Alliston. kim

Anonymous said...

Great post, Peter! I had not seen the Davids essay before--it's very interesting.

Regarding Susan, I tend to think the "dellarobbia" nickname was a reference to her her hair color, as Cath said. I found some sites about the della Robbia family that said they were originally textile workers and their name derives from a red dye. I don't think "my dellarobbia Susan" is a great phrase because one associates the della Robbias with cool, marble statues more than colors, but I guess it sounds nice.

--Jenny

Rehan Qayoom said...

Photographs of 3 facsimile sheets of the poem have been released. Apparently the drafts are available to view at the British Library though I am unsure if they are on public display. I live in London so might pop down middle of next week to check.

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