Ted Hughes’s poem “The Laburnum Top” describes the relationship between a goldfinch and a tree. The titular reference to the laburnum top is a synecdoche that represents the entire tree, which is an important partner in its symbiotic connection with the bird. Both the laburnum and goldfinch play significant roles in each other’s lives: the tree provides shelter to the bird and her offspring while the goldfinch brings vitality to the tree.
At the poem’s opening, the “silent” and seemingly lifeless laburnum tree is fading in early autumn:
In the afternoon yellow September sunlight,
A few leaves yellowing, all its seeds fallen.
Also known as a Golden Chain Tree or Golden Rain Tree for its hanging yellow flowers, this European plant blends in with the sunshine; its drying (“yellowing”) leaves and cast-off seeds signal this deciduous tree’s increasing dormancy before winter.
When the goldfinch suddenly appears, the tree comes to life.
She enters the thickness, and a machine starts up
Of chitterings, and a tremor of wings, and trillings—
The whole tree trembles and thrills.
It is the engine of her family.
She stokes it full.
The “machine” serves as an extended metaphor for the tree; however, it is not an inanimate appliance. Instead, it is an organic creature powered by the song and movements of the goldfinch and her offspring (as represented by the synecdoche “wings”) nesting in the tree. The personified plant shakes and emits joyful noises, revealing the hidden baby birds’ excitement at seeing their mother. As an “engine,” the tree serves as a living shelter for the avian family and is stoked or fueled by their energy. Just as the goldfinch feeds her hungry offspring, she animates the formerly “still” tree.
With a “face identity mask,” this distinctly marked European bird shimmies to the end of a branch before flying away. The birds’ lively, loud, and strong calls die down to “eerie” and “delicate” “whisperings.” The mother goldfinch’s departure then extinguishes the tree’s spirit:
She launches away, towards the infinite
And the laburnum subsides to empty.
The goldfinch’s role as the tree’s animator is suspended until her return; the seemingly “empty” and lifeless laburnum tree continues to serve its role as her nestlings' home and protector in her absence.