Last Thursday, I saw an article on NPR’s Facebook page about the imminent release of a previously unpublished Ted Hughes poem, called “Last Letter”.
Most of you probably know that Ted Hughes, in addition to being one of England’s poet laureates, was married for about 6 or 7 tumultuous years to Sylvia Plath. I think people remember him more for the latter than the former, at least in the United States. There has been much criticism of Hughes in the wake of Plath’s suicide in 1963, and many feminist writers and critics seemed to hold him responsible for her death, due to “mistreatment”. They base this on the fact that Hughes left her for another woman after 6 years of marriage (a woman who also committed suicide later on).
The poem that was released on Thursday was something of a bombshell. Ted Hughes did release a collection of poems he’d written to Plath during their relationship called “Birthday Letters”, but never had anyone seen a poem on the actual suicide event itself. Carol Hughes, Ted Hughes’ widow and keeper of his literary legacy, led Melyvn Bragg to this poem in the British Library archives. He was guest editing an issue of the New Statesman, and had asked Carol if he could use an unpublished poem of Ted’s in the issue. Mrs. Hughes apparently knew about this poem for years, and it seems she was waiting for the right moment and the right circumstances to release it to the public.
A friend of mine sent me a copy of the poem, which I’m not reprinting here, as I understand the estate is very strict about reprinting permissions. However, it is available in the October 7 issue of the New Statesman (if you are at a university, you might be able to access this online through your library). I found myself shaking as I read this poem. It’s hard not to be affected by it. Even Melvyn Bragg was affected—his voice broke upon reading the last lines of the poem at a public event.
Now, to the poem itself—Hughes reveals a number of things about Sylvia’s suicide. First, she apparently mailed him a suicide note on the Friday before the deed, perhaps assuming it would not reach him until Monday. British post usually comes twice a day, so the postman “defeated” her by getting the letter to him too soon. When he knocked on her door, he was relieved to see her answer. There is a disturbing image in the poem of Sylvia with her “strange smile” taking the suicide letter from him and burning it in an ashtray. He recounts the way he spent his weekend, out with another woman, but somehow returning to the places where he and Sylvia first met. The poem ends with the words from a phone call “your wife is dead”.
The poem lays to rest a lot of assumptions about Hughes’ interaction with Plath in her last days. I’ve always thought it was unfair for people to judge Ted Hughes as being somehow “responsible” for Plath’s depression and suicide. No one should ever pass that judgment on someone else’s relationship—even if they knew the couple well. If anything is clear from Sylvia Plath’s biography, it is that she was NOT a well person. As far as I know she was never officially diagnosed with a mental illness, but her mother’s account of her screams “bipolar”. If she was indeed bipolar, and it was untreated, then there was nothing anyone could do. And there would have been no way for Ted to win against that—his marriage to her would have been doomed from the start. It would not be surprising to have a mental illness like that go undiagnosed in the 1950s. It is clear from one of her mother’s few public interviews that she was dismissive of the idea of Sylvia being mentally ill. A psychologist is more qualified to look at the facts and make a guess than I am, though we’d never really know without Sylvia actually being here.
Whether it was bipolar disorder or something else, it is clear that not all was right mentally with Sylvia, even before Ted left. This may have been the fountain of her genius as well as of her suffering. One wonders if we would have such a magnificent body of poetry from her if she had been medicated for a diagnosed illness. And then you have to ask—is that level of insanity required for creativity? Does the artist always have to live a torturous emotional life or have a “screw loose”? Does that bring about the “best” art? How fine is the line between creativity and insanity?
A recent study suggests that the answer may be dopamine. Highly creative people and those with schizophrenia have a low number of D2 receptors (receptors for dopamine) in the thalamus, which means they have fewer information “filters”. This enables them to make connections and associations in ways that others don’t. The article I’ve linked to makes a distinction between “healthy creatives” and schizophrenics. But again, there is a spectrum, and the lines seem very blurry at times.
Back to Ted Hughes-- I feel a lot of sympathy for him, because in the end, he had a relationship that was unmanageable, and even harmful at times. I know what it’s like to reach the point where there’s nothing else you can do but leave. It is clear that he still cared about Sylvia, and there is nothing worse than when you really love someone and realize that it’s just not going to work, no matter how much you want that. In any difficult relationship, there is never just one partner responsible for the split—as they say, “it takes two to tango” (though it can be argued that sometimes one partner is clearly more responsible). But to blame Hughes for Plath’s suicide is just unfair. I hope the publication of the poem lays much of that controversy to rest.