Nothing Gold Can Stay
Nothing Gold Can Stay
Robert Frost 1923
Published in Robert Frost’s collection New Hampshire in 1923, “Nothing Gold Can Stay” combines Frost’s attraction to details of nature with his tendency to make direct statements of theme. The poem addresses the fleeting nature of beauty and innocence. The poem seems to say not only that change is inevitable but also that all change involves degeneration. The poem does not so much present the progression of an insight as an accumulation of examples all testifying to the same point.
Born in San Francisco, Frost was eleven years old when his father died, and his family relocated to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where his paternal grandparents lived. In 1892, Frost graduated from Lawrence High School and shared valedictorian honors with Elinor White, whom he married three years later. After graduation, Frost briefly attended Dartmouth College, taught at grammar schools, worked at a mill, and served as a newspaper reporter. He published a chapbook of poems at his own expense, and contributed the poem “The Birds Do Thus” to the Independent, a New York magazine. In 1897 Frost entered Harvard University as a special student, but left before completing degree requirements because of a bout with tuberculosis and the birth of his second child. Three years later the Frosts’ eldest child died, an event which led to marital discord and which, some critics believe, Frost later addressed in his poem “Home Burial.”
In 1912, having been unable to interest American publishers in his poems, Frost moved his family to a farm in Buckinghamshire, England, where he wrote prolifically, attempting to perfect his distinct poetic voice. During this time, he met such literary figures as Ezra Pound, an American expatriate poet and champion of innovative literary approaches, and Edward Thomas, a young English poet associated with the Georgian poetry movement then popular in Great Britain. Frost soon published his first book of poetry, A Boy’s Will (1913), which received appreciative reviews. Following the success of the book, Frost relocated to Gloucestershire, England, and directed publication of a second collection, North of Boston (1914). This volume contains several of his most frequently anthologized pieces, including “Mending Wall,” “The Death of the Hired Man,” and “After Apple-Picking.” Shortly after North of Boston was published in Great Britain, the Frost family returned to the United States, settling in Franconia, New Hampshire. The American editions of Frost’s first two volumes won critical acclaim upon publication in the United States, and in 1917 Frost began his affiliations with several American universities as a professor of literature and poet-in-residence. Frost continued to write prolifically over the years and received numerous literary awards as well as honors from the United States government and American universities. He recited his work at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and represented the United States on several official missions. Though he received great popular acclaim, his critical reputation waned during the latter part of his career. His final three collections received less enthusiastic reviews, yet contain several pieces acknowledged as among his greatest achievements. He died in Boston in 1963.
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
In these opening lines, Frost introduces nature as his subject, nearly personifying nature with the pronoun “her.” “First green” indicates newness, the beginning of spring. Frost creates a paradox, an internal contradiction, however, because he claims that “green is gold.” Gold, of course, can be simply a color, the reflection of the sun on new growth. Culturally, however, gold also indicates something of great value. Yet, nature cannot keep this gold. Of all the colors, it’s the most difficult shade to hold onto. Also notice the alliteration, or repetition of initial consonant sounds, in line two, where four of the five words begin with the letter “h.”
Again, Frost creates a paradox. The first leaf is really a flower, although that flower is shortlived.
In these lines, the poem becomes more complicated. The leaf returns to being a leaf rather than a flower, but the connotation of “subsides” is that the leaf doesn’t simply change, but becomes less than it once was. A leaf is something less than
- An audio cassette titled The Poetry of Robert Frost is available from Audiobooks.
- An audio record titled Robert Frost Reads the Poems of Robert Frost was released in 1957 by Decca.
- AIMS Media released a video cassette titled Robert Frost as part of its Poetry America Series.
- A video cassette of Robert Frost, volume three of the Voices and Visions Series, is available from Mystic Fire Video.
- A video cassette titled Robert Frost—1958 Interview, part of the Wisdom Series, is available from Zengar Video.
a flower. This idea is repeated in the next line, where “Eden sank.” The word “sank” again indicates that the place declines. “Eden” is an allusion to the garden of Eden mentioned in the Bible, a paradise where Adam and Eve could live without work or pain. But that situation changed quickly, and Eden feels “grief.” Frost introduces this emotion of loss which could characterize the emotional quality of all the examples he utilizes in this poem.
The concluding lines capture the point of the poem. Dawn here is similar to the “first green” of the first line because dawn indicates newness and the hope that often accompanies newness. Yet dawn doesn’t remain but becomes day. Notice, though, that once again, Frost has chosen a verb with negative connotations, “goes down,” to describe this change. The last line, which repeats the title, summarizes the theme of the poem. Nothing of value, the speaker seems to believe, will remain. More radically, because of the examples that are included, the poem suggests that we can determine what is valuable according to the length of its lifespan. Dawn is more valuable than day, for example, because dawn is brief.
Change and Transformation
The transitions that things in nature undergo, their growth and mutation, can be viewed as a sign of nature’s glory. For example, the theory of evolution outlined by Charles Darwin in his book The Origin of the Species popularized the phrase “survival of the fittest,” which implies that some degree of worthiness should be attributed to anything that avoids extinction. Similarly, today we use the phrase “to evolve” with the sense that the thing in question is moving toward grandeur and purity, and to a state of being more functionally efficient. Our general assumption is that things change in order to become better. In this poem, though, Frost conveys a feeling of sorrow about the fact that things must change time. He concentrates upon the good things that are lost, rather than the terrible things that give way to a more sensible way of being, From nature, for instance, he mentions how a flower yields its beauty to become a commonplace and homely leaf. Frost, however, could just as well have taken the same plant and depicted it as a hard little seed in the dirt giving way to the flower. In the human realm, he uses for an example the Book of Genesis wherein “Eden sank to grief”: his same biblical source could have provided him with countless examples in which grief gives way to triumph. Frost’s examples are similar in that they are presented as original conditions. His poem seems to tell us that if original conditions are golden, and are subsequently lost, then life apparently is a bleak prospect. But it is not clear if Frost intended us to look at change as necessarily being negative. His last image, of the dawn giving way to day, seems to imply that our attraction to the superficial beauty of “gold” should be disappointed, as inevitably things take a more practical from.
The use of the word “gold” in this poem shows intelligent and careful choice. The word “gold” represents both the color and its namesake, the metallic ore that is valued both for its aesthetic beauty and financially for its rarity. By using this word to explain the brief state of beauty through which the things of the world pass, the poem describes the value of the plant’s first shoot, of Eden, and of the sunrise. Unlike the metal ore, though, the examples Frost gives us of golden beauty are not rare; they are fleeting. Frost’s point is about the transitory nature of beauty: nothing gold can survive.
This relationship between beauty and its own demise has been consistent throughout the world’s history. Some societies find sorrow in the fact that beauty fades, as can be seen in this poem. In other societies, particularly those based on Eastern philosophies, there is less emphasis on a conceptual permanence that never really existed. Therefore, there is less disappointment over the fact that permanence cannot be reached and more appreciation for the role of fleeting beauty in the larger scope of life. For example, to this way of thought the flower referred to in line 3 would not be missed when it is gone, but would rather be appreciated for what it was in the short time it existed.
The transformations presented in “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” such as the withering of flowers and the earth’s rotation, are everyday processes that are a part of Earth’s natural order and are independent of human will. It is hard to tell, given this context, what Frost has in mind when he says that Eden “sank to grief.” According to the Book of Genesis in the Bible, Adam and Eve, the first humans, were expelled from the garden of Eden because they chose to do what God had told them not to do. The grief suffered by them, and therefore by the entire human race, was a consequence of their action: according to the Bible, Adam and Eve did not “sink” from the garden paradise into a world of misery, but rather they had jumped. In the context of the poem, though, Adam and Eve’s transgression was bound to happen eventually. Following the same rhythm and syntax of its preceding and succeeding lines, the line “So Eden sank to grief” is tied into those lines’ depiction of natural transformation and growth. Also, the word “sank” is similar in meaning to the words “goes down” and “subsides,” which describe the sunrise and plant growth respectively; these words imply resignation to gravity and exclude any connotation of deliberate action. The poem eliminates the possibility that they might have stayed in Eden and removes the implication that Adam and Eve were ultimately responsible for their sin when they chose to disobey God’s law. At first glance, Frost’s version seems to be gentle to humans, portraying them as no more prone to sin than plants or the rising sun. On the other hand, the poem casts a dark
Topics for Further Study
- In a poem of your own design, trace the fate of a color in nature. Is it permanent or temporary? Is it currently increasing or becoming more scarce? Give examples of where the color is, has been, and will be found.
- Discuss Frost’s rhyme scheme in this poem. Do you think that it helps the reader understand the poem’s message? In what way? Does this swaying rhythm make it hard to take the poem’s message seriously?
- Do you think the statement “nothing gold can stay” accurately relates to the way we metaphorically use “gold” to symbolize all things having to do with commerce? Why or why not?
shadow over the nature of mankind, telling us that humans are not innately good but are eventually bound to sin.
Although it is printed in one stanza, “Nothing Gold Can Stay” can be discussed as a series of couplets because of its rhyme scheme, which is aabbccdd. This means that line one (“gold”) rhymes with line two (“hold”), line three with line four, and so on. The basic meter of this poem is iambic trimeter. “Iambic” means that each metrical foot contains two syllables, an unstressed one followed by a stressed one. Trimeter means that each line contains three metrical feet. A poem written in iambic trimeter, then, would contain a total of six syllables in each line. Take another look at line six. When this line is scanned, it will look like this:
So E / den sank / to grief.
Such metrical patterns can make poetry sound more musical. When a line varies from this pattern, as the final line does, the variation will emphasize that line.
From today’s perspective, the year that Frost published this poem, 1923, can be seen as a time of glamour, excitement, and prosperity. America was in the middle of the socially vibrant era referred to as “The Jazz Age”: the term had, in fact, just recently been popularized by the 1922 publication of Tales of the Jazz Age by F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose novels and short stories are considered by scholars to have captured the spirit of the twenties better than any other writer. The Jazz Age was a social epoch that took place, predominantly among young adults, after the conclusion of World War I in 1919. During this war, young Americans had encountered devastation on a scale to which no previous generation had been exposed. In addition to the sheer global magnitude of the war (32 nations were involved, resulting in the deaths of 37 million military personnel and 10 million civilians; direct costs of the war topped $186 billion), there was the shocking brutality that modern warfare could achieve with new, sophisticated weaponry such as airplane bombs, land mines, and mustard gas. With much of the industrialized world damaged during the war, the United States quickly rose to economic prominence. The generation that became disillusioned with life by witnessing so much wanton destruction had more to spend on self-destructive living than most prosperous postwar societies. Added to this was the fact that, in 1920, the Constitution’s Eighteenth Amendment, prohibited manufacture, sale, and transportation of liquor in the United States. Some say this did more to make a self-destructive generation more likely to seek liquor out than avoid it. The Jazz Age embraced flamboyant parties of dancing to “corruptive” jazz music (which, was new, allegedly wild, and associated with troublemakers) and drinking bootleg—or illegally obtained—liquor. The Jazz Age lasted throughout the 1920s, until 1929, when the stock market crash and the subsequent Great Depression made it difficult for the aging revelers to laugh at responsibility any more.
The growth of the U.S. economy during the 1920s was truly incredible, making its abrupt reversal by the crash of 1929 all that much more stunning. In retrospect, we can see Frost’s phrase “Nothing gold can stay” as somewhat of a prophesy that applied directly to the rising economic cycle of the times. When the poem was published, however, too many people were busy making too much money for his abstract point to have much effect. Between 1923 and 1929, U.S. corporate profits increased an astounding 62 percent, and dividends to shareholders grew by 65 percent (compare this to the fact that a good, stable investment today will yield eight to ten percent). Much of this huge growth represented profits from investments which were immediately re-invested: often, no real money or goods were involved, but only theoretical earnings, which was why the crash wiped away so many fortunes overnight. Pay for the workers who actually produced goods and services (and who are therefore a better indicator of the country’s true prosperity) rose only 11 percent in the six years following 1923. With so much economic growth resting upon such a small amount of actual production, it was inevitable that the economic system could not handle the flow of imaginary cash: every day during the 1920s one to three banks in the United States went out of business. Many people recognized that the incredible luck of investors was bound to change at any moment, but they still invested, hoping to make a quick fortune and hoping that it would be the next investors who would suffer the consequences when the system crashed. In addition to the profit frenzy in legitimate business, confidence schemes thrived in the twenties. They offered common people the chance to realize huge earnings by investing their savings in land deals, holding companies, and foreign corporations that often did not actually exist.
Organized crime flourished in the 1920s, built mainly by the profits made by selling the illegal liquor that the public demanded. Because legitimate business could not have anything to do with liquor, the supply was low, but demand existed for any type of alcoholic beverage available. Because the demand was so high, criminals could charge an inflated price and always find someone willing to pay it. By 1926, illegal liquor trafficking was estimated to be a $3.6 billion business. Otherwise law-abiding citizens came to associate with criminals at illegal saloons known as “speakeasies,” and much of the easy money that investors were scooping up in the stock market was funneled to crime organizations, where it blended with the profits from murder, prostitution, and extortion. By the late 1920s, more and more Americans came to feel that Prohibition was a “failed experiment”: this feeling became even stronger after the start of the Depression, when it was felt that Prohibition deprived people of jobs. It was repealed by the 21 st Amendment of 1933. The crime organizations that had provided liquor during Prohibition already had a strong foothold in the American economy and transferred their attention into other illegal activities.
Compare & Contrast
- 1923: Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was officially established.
1945: At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union took control of most of the eastern European countries that Germany had overthrown. To oppose their control, the United States organized the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), solidifying cooperation with the nations of western Europe.
1961: To discourage emigration out of East Germany, which it controlled, the USSR built the Berlin Wall.
1989: The Soviet Union came apart. First, Poland held free elections—its first since Communist takeover—and elected a non-Communist government. Then the economies of Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania collapsed. In a final, symbolic move, the Berlin Wall was opened and soon after dismantled by the hands of elated citizens.
1991: The Union of Soviet Socialists Republic officially disbanded.
Today: Countries of the former Soviet Union are welcome to voluntarily belong to the Commonwealth of Independent States.
- 1923: Volume 1, number 1 of Time magazine was published. This was the first of the national newsweekly magazines.
1933: The first issue of News-Week magazine was published and competed with Time for readers.
1936: Life, a magazine devoted mainly to photographs, was first published by the Time corporation and proved to be extremely successful.
1972: With more people turning to color television for their view of the contemporary world, Life magazine suspended publication.
Today: In order to keep up with fast-paced electronic news sources, Time and Newsweek, along with most daily papers, are available on the Internet.
- 1923: Clarence Birdseye, who had spent six years developing a method of quick-freezing fish in order to preserve their flavor during storage, opened Birdseye Seafood in New York. Lacking financial backing, he went bankrupt.
1929: General Foods was created by a merger of the foundering Birdseye company with 34-year-old Postum, which owns the rights to Jell-O, Minute Tapioca, Hellmann’s Mayonnaise, Log Cabin Syrup, Calumet Baking Powder, and Maxwell House Coffee, among others.
1939: Under the Birdseye label, General Foods introduced the first precooked frozen foods: chicken fricassee and criss-cross steak.
1985: General Foods was bought by tobacco giant Philip Morris Company, creating the world’s largest consumer products company.
Today: The Birdseye name is owned by Dean Foods, a much smaller conglomerate.
Critics generally mention this poem when they are discussing Frost’s lyrics in general. Louise Townsend Nicholl, writing in the American Review, states that “Frost’s lyrics are among the most perfect being written. She cites “Nothing Gold Can Stay” as “fit to be” a classic. Later in the article, she explains her criteria for making such a judgment: “The quality which is strong in all real poets of seeing the invisible, the telescope vision, crops out in Frost in many ways. Mysticism the quality might be called. The things he sees are various, but the way he sees them remains the same.” Nicholl means here that Frost’s interpretation of the world is consistent and that though he may choose different natural elements to function as symbols, his underlying philosophy remains unaltered.
Dana Gioia is a poet and critic. His books include The Gods of Winters and Can Poetry Matter? In the following essay, Gioia explains why it is difficult to write a short poem, and he praises Frost for the depth of meaning he was able to evoke in only eight lines.
There is a distinctive category of short poem in English that has never been given a proper name. Usually between five and twelve lines in length, the form is briefer than a sonnet but more extensive than an epigram. The form tries for a more ambitious—and usually less satiric—turn of thought than the epigram, and it does not so neatly resolve itself in witty closure. The form, however, also differs from the sonnet because it does not strive for the complex argument of contrast and resolution so famously found in the fourteen-line paradigm. Instead, this type of short poem usually tries to describe a single scene or develop a single idea with evocative finality. These poems also often have an emblematic quality—the images acquire a symbolic resonance and suggest broader meanings.
Such evocative short poems are difficult to write. Every line, every image, must meaningfully contribute to the whole. There is no place for a weak word to hide. The poem must be tightly constructed but not so rigidly that its effect feels forced or predetermined. The balance must be perfect. A successful epigram can contentedly proceed as mere verse—memorably turned metrical language—but this slightly longer form strives for the fullness of poetry. The fact that it is small in size does not limit it to being small in ambition. A number of American poets have been distinguished masters of this concise but expressive style—most notably Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, Langston Hughes, J. V. Cunningham, Theodore Roethke, X. J. Kennedy, and Robert Frost.
“Nothing Gold Can Stay” first appeared in Frost’s 1923 volume, New Hampshire, his first book to win a Pulitzer Prize. (Frost would eventually garner the prize four times—still the record for any American poet.) Published when the author was forty-eight, New Hampshire was a diverse collection of longer narratives and satires mixed with short lyric poems, including several very brief works. The most memorable of these short poems were “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” “Fire and Ice,” and “Dust of Snow,” now all classic anthology pieces. All three illustrate Frost’s mastery of the short poem, but none better exemplifies the possibilities of the form than “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”
“Nothing Gold Can Stay” is remarkably brief. Only eight lines long, it consists of just forty words. The diction is extremely simple. No word is longer than two syllables. Most are monosyllabic. The meter is slightly unusual for Frost—iambic trimeter (a line with three strong stresses usually spread across six syllables). The poet usually preferred the longer lines of iambic tetrameter (the eight-syllable line of “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”) or pentameter (the ten-syllable line of “Acquainted With the Night” and his other sonnets). “Nothing Gold Can Stay” is, in fact, the only poem in New Hampshire (out of forty-four pieces) that is written in the short trimeter line. All of these stylistic features contribute to the poem’s expressive brevity and lyric compression.
The movement of the poem is both simple and richly evocative. Viewed as a nature poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay” presents the moment in early spring when the vegetative world is first breaking into blossom. In the first four lines, Frost’s imagery quite literally describes how new leaves emerge as yellow or golden blossom before they develop into green leaves. “Her early leaf’s a flower,” the speaker observes. This period of blossom, however, is very brief. “But only so an hour,” the speaker then immediately qualifies. If the first three lines depict a world of rich beauty, the poem pivots decisively on line four.
The second half of the poem reveals the consequences of nature’s fall from gold. After a brief hour of golden promise, the poem declares, “Then leaf subsides to leaf.” As always, Frost’s exact phrasing is significant. Notice his unusual repetition of the word “leaf” within the same short line. Taken literally, the line suggests that the leaf was always intended to be only a green leaf, not a golden flower. If the flower lasted only an hour, the leaf, the poem suggests, survives for longer. Viewed as a description of the natural world, this observation appears eminently reasonable. A branch might blossom for only a week but the resulting leaves last for months. Frost’s poem, however, is now about to move beyond seasonal observations of Nature.
What Do I Read Next?
- F. Scott Fitzgerald is considered the one writer who best captured the heady richness of the Twenties. In his portrayals of wealthy characters in his books, he shows tremendous sympathy for the idea Frost displays in this poem regarding “gold.” Fitzgerald’s greatest work, often studied in schools, is The Great Gatsby. Other works by Fitzgerald of particular interest to students of the Jazz Age are The Beautiful and the Damned and Tales of the Jazz Age.
- Sidney Cox’s 1957 biography A Swinger of Branches: A Portrait of Robert Frost is considered to be one of the better books available about the poet. Cox knew Frost and uses the insight he gained from their relationship in examining Frost’s works.
- Frost’s friend Lawrance Thompson wrote the definitive biography of the poet, a massive three-volume work that was finished by R. H. Winnick after Thompson’s death. The three volumes were edited down to one book in a 1981 edition by Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Titled Robert Frost, a biography, this volume was authorized by Frost, and so it does not penetrate as deeply as a critical biography like Cox’s, but the authors had more access to details about Frost’s life.
- Students can get a good sense of the significance of Frost’s work by reading Robert Frost: Lectures on the Centennial of His Birth, published in 1975. Noted authors, including Helen Bacon, Peter Davison, Robert Pack, and Allen Tate all give testimony to Frost’s lasting contributions. Because these pieces were written to be heard aurally, they are they are more direct and easier to understand than many literary essays.
Suddenly the poem takes a surprising turn. After seemingly presenting only the natural world in the first five lines, “Nothing Gold Can Stay” now offers a mythic or theological simile to describe the leaf’s change from gold to green. “So Eden sank to grief,” the poem unexpectedly declares. Until now a reader might assume that the shift from gold to green was only descriptive and not evaluative, but the use of “grief” indicates that the transition is in some sense unfortunate and perhaps even painful. The poem then shifts focus again from the mythic to the temporal. “So dawn goes dawn to day” brings the stated subject back to the natural world, but this time the words point to the daily cycle of night and day rather than the annual cycle of the seasons.
“Nothing Gold Can Stay” explicitly describes identical moments in three temporal cycles: the daily, the yearly, and the mythic. In each case the poem depicts the moment when the promise of perfection declines into something lesser. Gold unabashedly becomes a symbol—a very traditional one—for the highest value and most radiant beauty. Spring, dawn, and Eden are each a sort of Golden Age, an impermanent paradise. What lies ahead is never stated overtly, but it is inarguably present by implication. Day is inevitably followed by night. Summer is succeeded by fall and winter. The green leaf eventually turns brown and decays. The loss of Eden gave Adam and Eve mortality. Human youth, by implication, is followed by maturity, old age, and ultimately death. The golden moment, therefore, is all the more precious because it is transitory. By focusing on a single moment, Frost evokes an entire day, year, lifetime, and human history.
If “Nothing Gold Can Stay” can be satisfactorily interpreted on natural, mythic, and theological levels, it can also be read—in general terms at least—from a biographical perspective. Written by a middle-aged man who had already lost two children, both parents, and his closest friend (the British author Edward Thomas who is commemorated in the poem placed immediately before “Nothing Gold Can Stay” in New Hampshire), this short work evokes a point in life when the golden illusions of youth have vanished. The poem is not explicitly autobiographical. Frost’s poem virtually never are. It reaches for broader resonance than the merely personal. Yet anyone familiar with Frost’s often difficult life can see that its hard-won wisdom was rooted in bitter experience. How characteristic of Frost that the personal origins of the poem—whatever they were—have been so magnificently transcended into a universal vision of the human condition. What the reader encounters is not a private complaint about life’s injustice but a tender if heartbreaking expression of the transience of beauty and the grief of mortality.
Source: Dana Gioia, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.
William H. Pritchard
In the following excerpt, Pritchard examines Frost’s volume New Hampshire, reserving special consideration and praise for the collection’s short pieces, which include “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
Source: “Mountain Interval and New Hampshire” in Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered, Oxford University Press, 1984, pp. 145-63.
John Robert Doyle, Jr.
In the following excerpt, Doyle points out that Frost presents a unique perspective on the age-old artistic subject of the fleetingness of youth and beauty.
“It is as if in writing ‘Nothing gold Can Stay,’ Frost had in mind his later definition of poetry as a momentary stay against confusion.”
Making imagery do more than create an atmosphere has been the practice of poets through the ages, though the method of handling the material differs markedly in different periods. Twelve hundred years ago the unknown author of Beowulf used his best images for more than creating atmosphere or giving a description.…
Hundreds of years later, Sir Philip Sidney, in the great period of the love sonnet in English, introduces images only to make them work for their place in the poem.…
Still hundreds of years later, across the channel, … [Robert Frost] is found offering ‘descriptions’ of nature intended to carry most of the weight of the meaning in an intensely serious poem.…
Biblical precept and plenty of examples demonstrate that gold cannot stay; so a reader feels strangely at home as he reads the title of one of Frost’s shortest poems, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” In fact, everything in the poem seems familiar, everything except the whole of it.…
The poem opens with images offering the freshness of spring; but as in a dream, when one reaches for the object it is gone.
Nature’s first green is gold,
but this first green is of a delicate and transitory quality that is already disappearing even as it is being born. Truly the golden green is
Her hardest hue to hold
When nature begins to stir,
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
By line four the pattern is set. These desirable things are given, but not to keep. The process goes on as
... leaf subsides to leaf.
Coming at its very heart, “subsides” is the word on which the poem balances. Before it appears, “subsides” has been prepared for; afterwards, it is echoed.
So Eden sank to grief
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
The impact of the poem comes from the inversion of the expected order which “subsides” imposes upon the reader. He must re-examine the situation and see why “subsides” has been used instead of expands, or grows, or enlarges, or advances. These words apply to the normal growing process, the increasing size, moving towards maturity; “subsides” applies to another aspect of the situation, the one being prepared for in the first four lines. As the leaf grows, it loses its green delicateness, its youthful qualities. It is the youthful characteristics that are hardest to hold.
So Eden sank to grief,
The archetype of golden youthfulness and innocence was soon lost before the onslaught of the properties of the tree of knowledge.
So dawn goes down to day.
As Wordsworth observed in the great ode, the “vision splendid”
fade[s] into the light of common day.
No, nothing gold can stay. While the mother, oblivious of times, fondles a golden headed bundle, the bundle has decided to crawl away, and stand, and walk, and … As the landscape painter relishes the peculiarly golden glory in the sunset, it has faded.
So cleanly and directly is “Nothing Gold Can Stay” written that one hesitates to do more than present it (as above) and linger briefly to allow the implications to begin to radiate; but the poem, despite its slightness, represents so important a part of Frost’s thinking that it demands comment. For two hundred and fifty years, it has been a commonplace of English literature to bewail the fleeting moment, the shortness of youth, of love, of life. The thinking which created this trend in literature is a basic part of the modern world, and is parallel to the widespread use of clocks and watches, and the concern of the modern world for the passage of time. It is, of course, possible to be aware of the passing moment without lamenting it. Because Frost believes this, his poem ends where it began, in a repetition of the initial claim; and the center of the poem presents samples of that which did not stay. The significant thing is to accept the moment before it passes. It is the way to master the flux of life. Perfection, or the realm of pure being, for which poets like Keats and Shelley and Poe sought does not exist in Frost’s poetry, Since the transitoriness of life is a fact, he says life will have to be that way. In one poem of this period, a poem called “Acceptance,” he says, “‘Let what will be, be’”. This attitude of acceptance is one reason for the lyric strength of his poems: his attitude allows him to love many aspects of external nature and of human nature because he is not taken up with lamenting what he cannot change. The poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” becomes, thus, a compliment to the gold things of the world, even if they cannot stay.
Source: “Thought in Lyric Form” in The Poetry of Robert Frost: An Analysis, Hafner Press, 1962, pp. 159-76.
Nicholl, Louise Townsend. “New Hampshire.” American Review, Vol. 2, No. 6, November-December, 1924, pp. 679-83.
Nitchie, George W., “A Momentary Stay Against Confusion,” in Robert Frost: A Collection of Critical Essays, James M. Cox, ed., Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962.
Perrett, Geoffrey, America In the Twenties: A History, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.
Wilson, Joan Hoff, The Twenties: The Critical Issues, Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1972.
Allen, Frederick Lewis, Only Yesterday, New York: Harper & Row, 1931.
This little-known history of the 1920s is considered to be one of the best books ever published about the decade. Allen wrote with the benefit of recent memory to give a compelling narrative of what it was like, although he lacked the broad overview that modern historians have. Several editions have been published since the initial printing.
Berger, Charles, “Echoing Eden: Frost and Origins,” Robert Frost, edited by Harold Bloom, New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986, pp. 147-66.
This essay focuses specifically on the way the Frost handles the subject of beginnings.
Braeman, John, Robert H. Bremner, and David Brody, eds., Change and Continuity in Twentieth-Century America: The Twenties, Ohio State University Press, 1968.
This collection of scholarly articles about the 1920s gives background about the less prominent elements that made up society, with essays ranging from “Oil and Politics,” “The Ku Klux Klan,” and “The New Psychology: From Narcissism to Social Control.” Of particular interest to the student of literature would be Frederick J. Hoffman’s “Fiction of the Jazz Age.”
Cramer, Jeffrey S., Robert Frost Among His Poems: A Literary Companion to the Poet’s Own Biographical Contexts and Associations, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1996.
As this book’s subtitle suggests, the author has collected Frost’s statements about the background of each of his poems: where the ideas for each came from, how he interprets various passages, etc. Although the poet’s associations about a poem are not necessary for the reader to have appreciation of it, the ideas here give a fascinating portrait of how the creative mind works.
Stevenson, Elizabeth, Babbitts and Bohemians: The American 1920’s, New York: Macmillan, 1967.
Stevenson gives a good overview of the politics and social movements of the decade, with much detail about the historical facts but little about the personal lives of people living in these times.