The Laburnum Top

by Ted Hughes

About the poet

 

Name:             Ted Hughes

Born:               17 August 1930, Mytholmroyd, United Kingdom

Died:               28 October 1998, North Tawton, United Kingdom

Education:       Pembroke College, University of Cambridge

Spouse:            Carol Orchard (m. 1970–1998), Sylvia Plath (m. 1956–1963)

Awards:           Costa Book of the Year, Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts, US & Canada, Guardian Children’s                            Fiction Prize   

Edward James ‘Ted’ Hughes was a Modern English poet and critics ranked him as one of the best poets of the period. Among the important poets of the latter half of the twentieth century, Ted Hughes’ special contribution to English poetry lies in the creation of a poetic world with a central interest in wild animals and birds. His poetic inspiration is born out of and focused on the peculiar but intimate influence that animals of forests, trees and the sky have on a sensitive human spirit.

Synopsis

“The Laburnum Top” is a very powerful poem in which the laburnum symbolizes the hardships in life. The poem describes the laburnum tree whose seeds have not only fallen but also the leaves have turned yellow. It is an afternoon in September and the treetop is silent until a goldfinch appears. As soon as the goldfinch appears, there is a sudden strong tremor in the tree; there are noises of twitching of wings and chirping in bird language. The whole tree trembles. The engine of the bird’s family has appeared that is the mother goldfinch has brought food for her babies. The movement of the goldfinch is like a lizard, sleek and smooth. She is the engine of her family, which means she is working to provide nutrition to the family just like the engine is the major part of a machine.
In the end, the goldfinch again launches herself in the sky in a mysterious way and the laburnum is reduced to silence and emptiness again.

Interpretation

  • The Poem "The Laburnum Top" is a beautiful poem by Ted Hughes.

  • In this poem, the poet has used the Laburnum tree and goldfinches as a symbol of life and its fluctuations.

  • He describes the visiting of goldfinches on the Laburnum tree and how she has made a nest on it.

  • When the goldfinches have chicks, it brings alive the tree as the chicks start to rustle and chirp.

  • Hughes is trying to convey the message that life is a process of  exchange and transformation.

  • People are alive because they undergo exchange of energy.

  • The goldfinches transform the tree and make it alive, without the goldfinches and the chicks the laburnum is just another tree.

  • The poem examines and articulates the inter relationship between soul and body through common symbols of bird and tree.

  • Though the body and the soul can be separate entities, they are absolutely complementary to each other-one without the other is incomplete.

  • It is in the interaction between the two lies the beauty, vigour, and perfection of existence.

  • Thus the poem shows the states of existence both in the separation of the body and soul (beginning and end of the poem) and the (middle of the poem) union Which unmistakably and unambiguously provides the body-the tree- the vigour and the vitality mandatory for its life and its fulfilment.

  • There is an imagery of life and sustenance which is transported through the mother goldfinch to her young ones. She visits her young ones to feed them and assure them that she is there. It portends a yellow colour in the background of the laburnum leaves which speaks of warm but fading sunlight. It also indicates that the mother goldfinch has to fly far away at the close of autumn season. She also has to ensure a warm and secure winter for her young ones.

  • The laburnum tree symbolizes the pattern of our life in general. Life is seemingly dull and inanimate, but it is the attitude of a person towards life that makes it meaningful and worth living. The goldfinch brings cheer, happiness, and mirth to the simple and inanimate surroundings. Its happiness is infectious and all encompassing.

Explanation of The Poem

Stanza 1
 

The Laburnum top is silent, quite still
In the afternoon yellow September sunlight,
A few leaves yellowing, all its seeds fallen.

Word Meanings:


Laburnum top – top part of the Laburnum tree

Explanation:

The poet describes a beautiful sunny autumn. The Laburnum tree is silent and still. It is laden with yellow leaves and yellow flowers in September. Its leaves have turned yellow because of the autumn season and all its seeds have fallen.

Stanza 2
 

Till the goldfinch comes, with a twitching chirrup,
A suddenness, a startlement, at a branch end.
Then sleek as a lizard, and alert, and abrupt,
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, then flirts out to a branch-end
Showing her barred face identity mask.

Word Meanings:


goldfinch – a small, yellow bird
twitching – a small, often involuntary movement of the body
chirrup – the sound made by a bird
startlement – amazement
sleek – smooth
abrupt – suddenly
chittering – sound made by baby birds
tremor – shaking
trilling – to sing a series of quickly repeated high notes
trembles and thrills – shakes violently
the engine of her family – the goldfinch
stokes – adds fuel (here the goldfinch is feeding her chicks)
flirts – moves abruptly or jerkily with light steps
barred – striped

Explanation:

Just then a goldfinch alights on the Laburnum tree making short, high-pitched sounds. The goldfinch has her nest in the tree and her chicks are resting in the nest. On the mother’s return, a sudden movement stirs the tree. Her little ones are excited on her arrival and start chirruping. The cautious mother enters the tree with great care so that no predator can come to know that her babies are housed in the nest.

The poet has compared the alert, abrupt and sleek movement of the goldfinch with that of a lizard. The goldfinch has been called the engine of her family. Just as the engine starts up the machine, her arrival in the nest has suddenly started up the silent machine (nest) i.e. the young ones have started chittering and making noise. By feeding her young ones, she has added fuel to the machine and as a result the chicks now have the energy to be active and make noise.

After feeding her chicks, the goldfinch flies up and rests on the end of a branch of the tree, her identity concealed behind the yellow flowers and yellowing leaves.

Stanza 3
 

Then with eerie delicate whistle-chirrup whisperings

She launches away, towards the infinite
And the Laburnum subsides to empty.

Word Meanings:


eerie – strange in a frightening or mysterious way
launches – flies
infinite – the sky
subsides to empty – becomes silent, just as earlier

Explanation:

After some time, the goldfinch makes a strange short, high-pitched sound. Then she flies away towards the infinite sky. The Laburnum tree becomes silent again after the departure of the goldfinch and everything seems to be the same as it was before the arrival of the goldfinch.

Poetic Devices Used in the Poem

Simile: In this figure of speech, one thing is compared to another. An example of simile in this poem is ‘sleek as a lizard’.

Metaphor: In this figure of speech, a word/ phrase is used to represent something else. Examples of metaphor in this poem are ‘engine of her family’, where ‘engine’ represents the mother goldfinch, and ‘machine’ which represents the nest with its brood of bird chicks.

Alliteration: In this figure of speech, a number of words having the same first consonant sound occur close together in a series. Examples of alliteration in this ‘poem are ‘September sunlight’, ‘A suddenness, a startlement’, ‘and alert and abrupt’ and ‘tree trembles and thrills’.

Onomatopoeia: In this figure of speech, a word is formed from a sound similar to it. Examples of onomatopoeia in this poem are ‘twitching chirrup’, ‘chitterings’, ‘trillings’ and ‘whistle-chirrup’.

Transferred Epithet: A transferred epithet is a 1 description which refers to a character or event but is used to describe a different situation or character ‘Her barred face identity mask’ is an example of transferred epithet in this poem. The flowers of the Laburnum tree fall like bars and, when the bird sits behind the flowers, the shadow of the flowers on her face looks like she is wearing a mask that has bars on it.

Important Words :


Laburnum : The Golden Chain tree - A commonly found tree with golden flowers that hang in bunches
Laburnum Top : The top of the laburnum tree - its highest branches
Goldfinch : Wild canary - A small, yellow bird - The male of the species has black markings across the face, on the wings and tail.
Twitch : Small, often involuntary movement of a body part
Chirrup : An onomatopoeic word capturing the sound made by a bird
Startlement : Amazement - a sudden unexpected action which causes surprise
Sleek : Smooth - In the context of the poem, it could imply a quick movement without much disruption.
Abrupt : Sudden or unexpected
Chittering : An onomatopoeic word capturing bird sounds
Tremor : Shiver - shake
Trillings : Singing repeatedly - In the context of the poem, an onomatopoeic word, capturing bird sounds
Stokes : Adds fuel - In the context of the poem, the goldfinch feeds its family, providing the fuel (nutrition) that the machine (the bird's family) needs to be energetic
Flirts : In the context of the poem, move abruptly or jerkily with light steps
Eerie : Strange in a frightening or mysterious way
Infinite : In the context of the poem, the sky
Launches : In the context of the poem, flies
Subsides : Returns, reduces in intensity

Textual Question Answer

Find Out

Question 1. What laburnum is called in your language.
Answer: In Hindi, the Laburnum tree is called the amaltaas tree.

Question 2. Which local bird is like the goldfinch.
Answer: The local bird similar to the goldfinch is called Indian Lutino Ring neck?

Think It Out

Question 1. What do you notice about the beginning and the ending of the poem?
Answer: The thing similar in the beginning and the ending of the poem is that the Laburnum tree is still and silent on both occasions.

Question 2. To what is the bird’s movement compared? What is the basis for the comparison?
Answer: The bird’s (goldfinch’s) movement is compared to that of a lizard. The basis of the comparison is that the goldfinch’s movement is sudden and abrupt, which is quite similar to the movement of a lizard.

Question 3. Why is the image of the engine evoked by the poet?
Answer: The poet evokes the image of the engine as it is the source of energy for a machine. The poet compares the bird with an engine as she is the source of energy for the machine i.e. the nest where the chicks are resting.

Question 4. What do you like the most about the poem?
Answer: I like the description of the Laburnum tree laden with yellow flowers. Apart from this, I also like the arrival of the goldfinch which changes the silent tree into one full of noise. and activity.

Question 5. What does the phrase “her barred face identity mask” mean?
Answer: The Laburnum tree has flowers that fall like bars and, when the bird sits behind the flowers, the shadow of the flowers on her face looks like she is wearing a mask that has bars on it. Thus, ‘barred’ is actually an adjective for the flowers and has been transferred and applied to the bird. –

Short Answer Questions -

Question 1 ‘She launches away, towards the infinite’. Explain the given line.

Answer: ‘She’ stands for the goldfinch whose arrival on the tree has suddenly transformed it into a noisy place. After having fed her young ones and having made the tree active and full of life, the goldfinch flies away towards the infinitely vast sky.

Question 2 Why is the image of the engine evoked by the poet?

Answer The poet creates the imagery of a machine starting up when the goldfinch arrives in the tree. The sudden noise and movements produced by the young ones are like the starting of a machine. The stoking of the engine is actually the act of feeding the young ones and imparting energy and life into them.

Question 3 Describe the laburnum top.

Answer:  The leaves of the laburnum top are turning yellow due to the autumn. Its seeds have fallen and there is a silence prevailing over the tree. There is no movement at all.

Question 4 What happened when the goldfinch came to the laburnum tree?

Answer: The arrival of the goldfinch brought about a sudden change in the tree. The young ones started twittering and there was a lot of noise, commotion, and movement on the tree.

Question 5 Why has the poem been named ‘The Laburnum Top’?

Answer: The poem has been named ‘The Laburnum Top’ because the top of the tree has been described in detail by the poet and the second part is a vivid description of the transformation that the tree undergoes. The entire scenario revolves around the tree.

Question 6 Explain the first three lines of the poem 'The Laburnum Top'.

Answer: The laburnum is the tree whose top part is silent due to lack of movement. There is no breeze and hence there is no rustling of leaves. The time of the day is afternoon. The month is September, and the season is autumn season. The leaves of the tree have started decaying and turning yellow as they are about to fall. The seeds of the laburnum fruit have also fallen.

Question 7 How is the tree transformed during the bird’s visit? Write the line that shows this transformation.

Answer: The tree suddenly starts trembling and moving as if a machine has started up. This is due to the arrival of the goldfinch in her nest in order to feed her young ones. The young ones start their chitterings. There is a tremor of wings. The line that shows the transformation is ‘a machine starts up, of chitterings, and a tremor of wings, and trillings- the whole tree trembles and thrills.


Question 8 To what is the movement of the goldfinch compared? What is the basis for the comparison?

Answer: The goldfinch’s movement is compared to that of a lizard. The basis of the comparison is the sleek, abrupt, and alert movements of a lizard. The same kinds of movements are observed when the goldfinch arrives on the laburnum tree.

Question 9 What does the phrase ‘her barred face identity mask’ means?

Answer: This is an example of the poetic device – transferred epithet. The laburnum tree has flowers that fall like bars and when the bird sits behind the flowers the shadow on her face looks like she is wearing a mask that has bars on it. So, barred – is actually an adjective for the flowers and has been transferred from there and applied to the bird. 

Question 10 ‘The whole tree trembles and thrills’. Explain the poetic device used by the poet.

Answer: The poetic device used is ‘alliteration’. Tree trembles and thrills signify that the arrival of the goldfinch on the laburnum top is responsible for the movement and the activities on the tree. The tree has suddenly sprung to life and there is shaking and thrilling movement on it. Personification is also used as a poetic device in ‘Tree trembles.

Question 11 ‘It is the engine of her family; she strokes it full.’ Explain the significance of these lines.

Answer: The goldfinch has been called the engine of her family. Just as the engine starts up the machine, her arrival in the nest has suddenly started up the silent machine i.e. the young ones have started chittering and making noise. The expression 'She stokes it full' means that she has fed the young ones who now have the energy to become active and make noise.

Question 12 Explain the line ‘And the laburnum subsides to empty’.

Answer: This is the last line of the poem depicting the sudden silence which falls over the laburnum tree when the goldfinch flies away after feeding its young ones. It had been on the tree for some time and the tree had suddenly become lively and noisy but after its departure, the tree becomes silent again.

Question 13 ‘Then sleek as a lizard and alert and abrupt, she enters the thickness’. Explain the given lines.

Answer: The lizard is a quick moving animal. It is also very alert, and its movements are jerky and abrupt. In the same manner, the goldfinch enters in the thickness of the branches of the tree and feeds her young ones.

Question 14 What do you notice about the beginning and the ending of the poem?

Answer: The beginning of the poem describes a silent laburnum tree which has no noise, movement, or life. The ending is also similar where the goldfinch flies away into the vast sky. But the middle part of the poem shows us a totally transformed tree with noise of the young ones compared to a machine.

Question 15 Why did the goldfinch enter the thickness of the laburnum tree? Quote the line or words that support your answer.

Answer: The goldfinch entered the thickness of the laburnum tree because it had to reach its nest where its young ones were waiting to be fed by her. The lines that support the answer are ‘a machine starts up’, ‘of chitterings and a tremor of wings and trillings’.’

Reference to Context

1.    A few leaves yellowing, all its seeds fallen

Till the goldfinch comes, with a twitching chirrup

A suddenness, a startlement, at a branch end.

a) What has happened to the tree?

It is the month of September. The autumn has set in. The leaves of the tree have turned yellow and its seeds have also fallen.

b) How does the mood change on the arrival of the goldfinch?

The tree, which was earlier silent has become active, noisy, and full of life, as the goldfinch has come to feed her young ones.

c) There is a comparison of the goldfinch with an animal. Which animal is that?

The goldfinch has been compared to a lizard, sleek and abrupt in its movements.

2.    Then with eerie delicate whistle-chirrup whisperings

She launches away, towards the infinite

And the laburnum subsides to empty.

a) Who has been described in the first line?

The goldfinch has been described in the first line.

b) What impression is created by the description?

The chirruping of the birds is delicate, soft, and gentle like whispering. The reference is to the sounds that the bird makes.

c) What effect does the last line create?

The last line shows the contrast between the liveliness of the tree and the silent tree. The tree becomes silent and empty when the bird flies away.

3.    Then sleek as a lizard, and alert and abrupt,

She enters the thickness, and a machine starts up

Of chitterings and a tremor of wings, and trilling

The whole tree trembles and thrills.

a) Who is ‘she’ in the first line? Where does she enter?

‘She’ is the goldfinch and she enter the thickness of the trees.

b) What is the ‘machine’ referred to in line 2?

The ‘machine’ refers to the young ones of the goldfinch. They suddenly start twittering and chirruping as their mother comes to the nest to feed them.

c) Explain the meaning of the last line.

The tree was silent earlier but as the mother goldfinch comes to her nest, there is a lot of noise made by her young ones. The movement and the sounds produced are in contrast to the silence. The tree comes to life now.

4.    The laburnum top is silent, quite still

In the afternoon yellow September sunlight,

A few leaves yellowing, all its seeds fallen.

a)    Name the poem and the poet.

The name of the poem is ‘The Laburnum Top’ and the poet is Ted Hughes.

b)   Describe the laburnum tree.

The tree is silent and still. It has leaves that are yellowing and seeds have fallen.

c)    What is the mood in these lines?

The mood is of peace, calm, quiet and silence. There is absolute stillness and peace.

d)   Pick out the words that create the mood.

The words that create the mood are ‘silent’, ‘still’, ‘yellowing leaves’ and ‘fallen seed.

5.    It is the engine of her family

She strokes it full, then flirts out to a branch end

Showing her barred face identity mask

a)    Why has the word ‘engine’ been used to describe her family?

The word ‘engine’ has been used to describe her family. The engine of the machine starts up and there is noise, movement and energy signifying the excitement at the arrival of mother.

b)   Who is ‘she’? How does she stroke the engine?

‘She’ is the goldfinch who has her nest on the top of the laburnum tree. Just as the stoker feeds coal to the engine, the bird feeds her young ones.

c)    What does the bird look like?

The face which was earlier hidden in the thickness of the tree’s branches is now revealed as she comes out at the end of the branch. She seems to be wearing a striped mask.

Long Questions and Answers 

Question 1. The arrival of the goldfinch on the Laburnum top brings about a change in the poem. How do you interpret this change? Is change good or bad in life?
Answer: At the start of the poem, the top of the Laburnum tree in the poem is silent and still. There is hardly any activity on it as the sunlight falls on it on a September afternoon. However, with the arrival of the goldfinch, it suddenly becomes a place of feverish activity. The silence of the place is broken by the twittering and chirruping of the chicks and the goldfinch.

I think that the change brought about by the arrival of the goldfinch on the Laburnum top is good, as it breaks the monotony. The tree becomes alive and lively with the movement of the goldfinch and the twitterings and chirrupings of the chicks.

Change can be good or bad in life depending on a situation. However, the fact is that change is the only constant in life. So, even if a change is bad, we have to accept it and move on in life.

Question 2. What values do you learn from the goldfinch in the poem ‘The ‘Laburnum Top?
Answer: The goldfinch has its nest on the top of the Laburnum tree in the poem, ‘The Laburnum Top’. Her chicks stay in the nest while she (the mother goldfinch) keeps going out at regular intervals to get food to feed her chicks. This shows her caring nature and highlights the values of motherly care and affection of a mother towards her offspring.

The other aspect of the goldfinch that is captured in the poem is its movement. She arrives at the Laburnum top in a sudden manner and is very much alert to her surroundings. The poet has compared her movement with the sleek movement of a lizard. However, there is a reason for her moving like this (in an alert and sudden manner). She is moving in this manner so as to avoid getting noticed by any predator. She does not want any predator to know that her chicks are resting in her nest on the Laburnum top as then the predators may kill them or harm them. The values of safety and security for her offspring is highlighted in this act of the goldfinch.

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