There’s undoubtedly plenty of agony in the poem, but its power to move is closer to that of an uncontrolled diary entry than of a speech by King Lear or Macbeth.
“Last Letter” is unlikely to do much to rehabilitate Hughes with those who hold him responsible for the death of the great young star of American poetry—and for the suicide of Assia Wevill, his companion after Plath’s death, some six years later. (Like Plath, Assia gassed herself, and killed her four-year old daughter by Hughes, Shura, as well.) It was his affair with Assia, begun in the summer of 1962, that precipitated his separation from Plath, and a decisive moment inBirthday Letters, his narrative of the events leading up to Plath’s suicide, comes in the poem “The Inscription,” which recounts an occasion when husband and wife nearly got back together; in the course of this almost-reconciliation, however, Plath’s eyes happen to fall on Hughes’s edition of Shakespeare, a volume that in a fit of fury she had earlier ripped to pieces. The book has been miraculously “resurrected”:
Wondering, with unbelieving fingers, She opened it. She read the inscription. She closed it Like the running animal that receives The fatal bullet without a faltering check In its stride.
The resurrector of the book who inscribed it was of course Assia.
Well, Assia Wevill, or so “Last Letter” tells us, was not the woman in whose arms Hughes spent the weekend his wife committed suicide; he was in fact with one Susan Alliston. Alliston, like Plath, was a poet who would die young—not by her own hand, but of Hodgkin’s disease, in 1969.