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.
“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.