The Laburnum Top

Ted Hughes


Ted Hughes

Ted Hughes was an English poet and children's writer born in August 1930.

He was Poet Laureate from 1984 until his death.

‘The Laburnum Top’ by Ted Hughes is a beautiful poem about the progress of life. Change is always there, but the beginning has always its own taste. Whereas Autumn creates a sensation of future hopelessness, nature projects the spontaneity of a new starting. The little birds, the bards of nature, voice their life-force eventuated by the presence of their mother. Even the laburnum tree starts to live again, shedding all its future worries, and becomes a part of the eternal enjoyment that exists in nature, no matter how pessimistic the weather is. In this poem, Ted Hughes observes this natural phenomenon occurring on the top of the laburnum tree and presents his thoughts in the lines of the text.

The Laburnum Top by Ted Hughes



‘The Laburnum Top’ by Ted Hughes describes the top of a laburnum tree and captures the activity of the birds living in it.

‘The Laburnum Top’ by Ted Hughes begins with the description of the “Laburnum top”. Suddenly, a goldfinch comes and breaks the silence on the tree-top. It enters through the thickness of the laburnum leaves to its nest. And, the tree awakes from its slumber and enjoys the “chitterings”, “tremor of wings”, and “trillings” of the birds. It seems like the tree is trembling and thrilled by their presence. But, when the mother goldfinch launches herself away from the branches to the sky, the tree again comes to its previous state.

You can read the full poem here.



‘The Laburnum Top’ by Ted Hughes consists of four stanzas. Only the second stanza of the poem is long enough and has nine lines in it. It describes the main activity of the poem. However, the rest of the stanzas are short enough and the last stanza has only one line in it. There isn’t any specific rhyme scheme in the poem. But, there are a few slant rhymes in it. As an example, “trillings” and “thrills” contain an irregular rhyming scheme. Moreover, most of the lines of the poem contain more than ten syllables. Whereas, some lines are comparably short depicting the shift of movement in the poem.

However, the poet uses a mixed meter scheme in the poem. There are both, the iambic meter and the trochaic meter. There are also some variations of spondees and pyrrhics in the text. Whereas, some lines contain a hypermetrical foot at the end.


Poetic Devices

‘The Laburnum Top’ by Ted Hughes contains some important poetic devices that make the poem more interesting to read. Likewise, in the first line, the poet uses personification. Here, the poet personifies the “Laburnum top” or the tree itself. It is also an example of synecdoche and the variety employed here is “part for the whole”. There is an alliteration in “September sunlight”. Moreover, in the second stanza, the poet uses onomatopoeia in several instances. The words such as “chirrup”, “chitterings”, and “trillings” resonate with the sound of the birds.

In the third line of the second stanza, there is a simile as well as polysyndeton. In the following, the poet uses a metaphor in the use of the word “machine”. The poet uses a similar kind of metaphor in this line, “It is the engine of her family”. Here, the implied comparison is between the mother-goldfinch and the engine of a machine. The idea of “life-force” is associated with this line. In the next stanza, “the infinite” is a metonym of the sky. The last line contains a metaphor and it depicts the absence of sound, a symbolic reference to lifelessness.



‘The Laburnum Top’ by Ted Hughes presents some important themes like autumnal change, motherhood, the transience of natural beauty, and the resonance of life. In the first section of the poem, the poet presents the theme of autumn and the natural change associated with this season. The “leaves yellowing” and “seeds fallen” depict a sense of pessimism. In the following section, the poet uses several important themes. The theme of motherhood is introduced by the arrival of the mother-goldfinch. There is also a reference to mother-nature in this section. Moreover, the resonance of life gets reflected by the sound, a symbol of life, made by the birds living in the tree. However, after the departure of the goldfinch, the beauty of the previous section fades away, depicting the transience of natural beauty.


Analysis, Stanza by Stanza

Stanza One

The Laburnum top is silent, quite still
A few leaves yellowing, all its seeds fallen.

‘The Laburnum Top’ by Ted Hughes presents the laburnum tree and the effects of autumn in the first three lines of the poem. Autumn is the preface of the book of winter. Naturally, the future event gets reflected in nature. The laburnum tree isn’t out of the grip of this event. It is silent due to the absence of a breeze and still as if it lacks the spontaneity of life. Moreover, the yellow sunlight in the afternoon makes it leaves appear yellower. The seeds of the laburnum have fallen and it stands like nothing can redeem the tree from its autumnal slumber.


Stanza Two

Till the goldfinch comes, with a twitching chirrup
A suddenness, a startlement, at a branch end.
She stokes it full, then flirts out to a branch-end
Showing her barred face identity mask

In this long stanza of ‘The Laburnum Top’ by Ted Hughes, the pessimism of the previous section passes away and comes to the vibrance of life. The goldfinch like the soul of the tree comes with emanating liveliness. It makes a “twitching chirrup” that not only alerts the tree but also the other creatures living in it. The first sign of life gets reflected in the “suddenness” and “startlement” at the branch end. Thereafter, the bird moves like a lizard, slow but steady in its movement. The movement of the bird depicts the goldfinch somehow wants its nest to remain undiscovered and safe. Above all, the bird is a symbol of motherhood. The thoughts of her nestlings are there in its mind, even if it is away from the tree in search of food.

Moreover, the poet uses the imagery of modernism in the rest of the section. The tree, according to the poet, is a machine and the engine is none other than the goldfinch itself, like a body and the soul. The arrival of the bird eventuates a celebratory mood amidst the tree. The “chitterings”, “tremor of wings”, and “trillings” reflect life has its period of dormancy and rejuvenation. The duality of silence and sound is what makes life more amazing. However, like the bird’s sudden arrival, its departure is also momentary, exactly like the entry of the soul into a body and its leave-taking.


Stanza Three

Then with eerie delicate whistle-chirrup whisperings
She launches away, towards the infinite

In the third stanza of ‘The Laburnum Top’ by Ted Hughes, there is a brief description of the goldfinch launching away to the sky. Before leaving, it makes an eerie but delicate sound. Here, the poet uses oxymoron in the phrase, “eerie delicate whistle-chirrup”. Moreover, it reflects a mixed sense of joy and tension in the poem.


Stanza Four

And the laburnum subsides to empty.

In the last line of ‘The Laburnum Top’ by Ted Hughes, the poet describes what happens to the laburnum tree after the leave of its “engine”. The tree is like a human body that remains empty as the soul vacates its place and flies towards nonentity. The momentary beauty of nature as a whole fades just like the poet describes it in this poem.


Historical Context

‘The Laburnum Top’ by Ted Hughes reflects the poet’s fascination with nature. In his earlier days, Hughes wrote many poems on nature and animals. He established a connection between the civilized and the wild. Moreover, the paradoxical beauty of nature is no doubt a chief feature of Hughes’ early works. Apart from that, the imagery of modernism is also in this poem, in expressions like “machine” and “engine”.


Similar Poetry

Like ‘The Laburnum Top’ by Ted Hughes, the following poems also depict similar kinds of themes and innovatively present the transience of natural beauty.

You can read about 10 of the Best Nature Poems here.

Sudip Das Gupta Poetry Expert
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.

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