What is a summary of and background on the poem "My Own True Family" by Ted Hughes?
"My Own True Family" was published in a children's book by Ted Hughes called Meet My Family! with illustrations by George Adamson. The first edition of the volume, published on 7 April 1961 by Faber & Faber, did not include "My Own True Family." The poem "My Own True Family" and three other poems were added for a new Puffin Book edition published in August 1977.
The poem is organized into five three-line stanzas rhymed AAA BBB, etc. It is narrated in the first person. As we discover in the final stanza, it is a dream narrative. We receive little information about the narrator other than that the narrator in real life was a "human child."
In the poem, the narrator encounters an old woman who captures the narrator and ties him to a stake. The narrator dreams that his is then surrounded by a staring tribe of oak spirits who make him promise, under the threat of death, that when he sees an oak tree chopped down he will always plant two in its place. When he returns to the waking world, he has a mystical connection to nature, as expressed in the lines:
When I came out of the oakwood, back to human company,
My walk was the walk of a human child, but my heart was a tree.
It is important to realize that "My Own True Family" is the final poem in Hughes' collection which is a testament to its importance. On the surface level, the poem seems to be a work against deforestation because the child in the poem dreams that he is tied to a stake and must promise to plant trees in order to be set free. In fact, he is told the following: "Whenever you see an oak-tree felled, swear now you will plant two." This dream transforms the boy's heart.
The "summary" of this poem seems fairly simple. A "human child" has a dream in which he meets an old lady who captures him and ties him to "a stake." While tied to the stake, the surrounding oak trees and their "spirits" make the child (the speaker) promise to plant trees. This dream and this subsequent promise connect the speaker to nature and give him the "heart [of] a tree."
Beneath the surface, the poem is much more than an effort against deforestation. It is a confirmation that humanity must connect with the natural world in order to achieve its full potential. This idea is at the core of much of Hughes' literature.
"My Own True Family" tells the story of a young boy who is cursed by an old woman and dreams he is tied to a stake, surrounded by a ring of talking oak trees. The trees, who the narrator describes as his "own true family," make him promise that he will plant two trees wherever he sees one cut down with the threat of rooting him to the ground like a tree. The boy emerges from this experience with "the walk of a human child, but [his] heart was a tree."
The background for the poem was Ted Hughes's support of tree-growing projects for children in the early 1970s. Hughes previously wrote a letter entitled "Children Plant Trees For Tomorrow" that encouraged afforestation projects involving schoolchildren in order to promote a lifelong connection with the environment.