What is the summary of the poem "The Laburnum Top" by Ted Hughes?

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The speaker of "The Laburnum Top" describes a scene he witnesses happen in a laburnum tree on a sunny September day. A goldfinch flies over and enters the tree. Once the bird is out of sight, the speaker hears a flurry of chirping. The goldfinch comes out onto a tree branch and then flies away, and the tree returns to its state of silence.


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Laurine Herzog eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Ted Hughes's "The Laburnum Top" is a poem about the cycle of life. It begins, in the first stanza, with a description of a tree in autumn. Some of its leaves are turning yellow, and its seeds have fallen. This represents one life fading and another, in the form of the seeds, about to begin.

In the second stanza, a goldfinch arrives with "A suddeness, a startlement," and the tree is brought back to life again. Its branches become busy with "chitterings, and . . . tremor of wings, and trillings," and the entire tree "trembles and thrills." The tree is also described, metaphorically, as "the engine" of the bird's family. In other words, the tree helps the bird and its family to flourish and, as it were, move forward. It provides the bird, and its family, with a place to rest and find shelter. It also provides food, in the form of sap and buds, for example. This stanza represents the co-dependency of life. One life, even (or perhaps especially) when it may be fading, helps another. The old life helps the young life by providing for it, and the young life in turn helps the old life by revitalizing it.

In the third and fourth stanzas, the goldfinch flies away, "towards the infinite," and the tree dies, or "subsides to empty." These stanzas represent death. This ending to the poem also perhaps suggests that there is a spiritual side to life. Indeed, the bird may symbolize the soul of the tree, which animates life (the tree) for a short while and then leaves to return to "the infinite." Without the soul, life, like the tree, is "empty."

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D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The setting of this poem is a laburnum tree in September. A goldfinch nests in it with her brood of chicks. Color ties the tree and the bird together: at this time of year, the leaves of the tree turn yellow and goldfinches are also yellow or golden in hue. Further, unlike most birds, goldfinches will hatch eggs in the early fall.

The poem is divided into four stanzas of uneven length. In the first, three-line stanza, we are introduced to the top of the laburnum tree, with its yellow leaves accented by the sunlight and its seeds dropping. It is alive and fertile.

In the second, nine-line stanza, the poem's longest, we are introduced to the goldfinch that nests in the tree. She brings it more fully to life by landing on it, making it tremble. There is movement and the sound of twittering as she appears. She is the "engine of her family."

In the third, two-line stanza, she flies away from the tree, soaring towards the "infinite."

In the final stanza, of one six-word line, the tree is "empty" without her presence.

The poem shows how the bird brings life to the tree. While the question asks only for summary, one interpretation of the poem is that Ted Hughes is the tree and the bird that flies to infinity is his estranged wife, Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide, leaving behind two young children.

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Gracie O'Hara eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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A laburnum or "golden chain" tree is a deciduous species with yellow flowers often planted as an ornamental tree. Most parts of the tree and its fruit are poisonous. A laburnum top refers to the top of such a tree, the part with leaves and branches and flowers. 

The poem consists of four stanzas written in free verse. In the poem, a third-person narrator describes watching the tree in September, just as a few of its leaves start to turn yellow. The events of the poem take place over a period of a few minutes.

At the beginning of the poem, the tree appears empty and quiet. A female goldfinch then returns to her nest on the tree and the narrator can hear her chicks chirping and see the leaves moving, even when the mother bird is hidden by the leaves. The narrator compares the return of the mother to an engine starting and setting a machine in motion. The mother bird then heads out to the end of a branch and flies off and the tree falls silent again. 

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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"The Laburnum Top" is a poem which celebrates the energy and life of nature.  The laburnum tree is sitting in the silence of fall, without movement or apparent life.  In flies a goldfinch, stirring up life both in and on the tree, as evidenced by the sound of rustling leaves and the scurrying of a lizard.  The "engine" has roared to life with all kinds of sounds and life and energy; then the bird leaves and the laburnum falls back into silence and stillness...and the impending dormancy of winter.

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