By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’ is one of Robert Frost’s shortest poems, and, along with ‘Fire and Ice’, probably his best-known and most widely studied very short poem. The poem was published in 1923, first of all in the Yale Review and then, later the same year, in Frost’s poetry collection New Hampshire. You can read ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’ here before proceeding to our analysis below.
First, a brief summary of the poem. In just eight lines, Robert Frost (1874-1963) offers a fairly comprehensive view of the world, taking in the mutability of everything in it from the leaves on the trees to the purest good that existed in Eden before the Fall. ‘Nothing lasts forever’ might be a pale (or white gold?) paraphrase of Frost’s golden meaning.
We begin with what reads like almost a paradox: ‘Nature’s first green is gold’. Since nature turns leaves both green and gold, there’s some initial uncertainty and ambiguity: is the poet saying that nature’s green leaves in the spring are rare and precious like gold? This seems likely.
The succession of aspirants in the second line, with the quadruple alliteration on ‘Her hardest hue to hold’, seems sighingly to concede that the greenness of spring is thought rare and precious to us (like gold) because we know it is short-lived and temporary: nature’s green will give way to gold in the autumn. ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’, then, is an autumn poem.
The third and fourth lines elaborate on this: nature flowers beautifully in spring, but only for ‘an hour’ or so. The phrase ‘leaf subsides to leaf’ seems confusing. How can a leaf subside to a leaf? Well, because a green leaf turns into a golden or brown leaf as autumn comes on, nature changing its colours with the changing of the seasons. Then those leaves will die altogether, falling from the trees and flowers onto the ground.
But in the next line’s reference to the Garden of Eden, Frost broadens the focus of this short poem to take in questions of religion as well as nature: if the death of leaves each autumn is a loss of paradise, then it is like that original paradise which we lost, according to Christian tradition: the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Of course, these two ideas, religion and nature, are linked through Eden being a garden, full of flowers (and leaves).
It’s possible here that Frost is summoning (without explicitly mentioning) the word ‘fall’, which helps to provide further significance to the Eden reference: the leaves fall in the autumn (a season known as ‘Fall’ in North America, of course, where Frost lived for much of his life, aside for a few years in England), and it was the Fall of Adam and Eve that led to their expulsion from Eden.
Having momentarily taken in the Biblical in this line, the focus of the penultimate line of ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’ returns to the small: dawn ‘goes down’ to day, just as a green leaf subsides to a gold or brown one. The final line, ‘Nothing gold can stay’, brings us back to the poem’s title, whose enigmatic meaning is now clearer: nothing beautiful, rare, or precious lasts for long.
But Frost’s choice of the auxiliary verb ‘can’ (rather than ‘will’, although many readers may misremember the title of the poem as ‘Nothing Gold Will Stay’) suggests that this is the way it’s meant to be: nature is not meant to be static.
And of course, there’s a certain consolation in the fact that Frost’s choice of image to illustrate this sentiment – the fading of green spring leaves – effectively places one kind of ‘gold’ with another: the (metaphorical) ‘gold’ of the beautiful new leaves will give way to a literal gold in autumn, which is no less beautiful in its way than the green of springtime flowers.
‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’ is oddly reminiscent of William Blake’s poetry: the use of tetrameter, the plain and straightforward language, the simple rhyming couplets. But although Frost’s poem is written in direct and accessible language, he conveys a great deal in just eight short lines, much as Blake was able to do in his short lyrics.
About Robert Frost
Robert Frost (1874-1963) is regarded as one of the greatest American poets of the twentieth century. And yet he didn’t belong to any particular movement: unlike his contemporaries William Carlos Williams or Wallace Stevens he was not a modernist, preferring more traditional modes and utilising a more direct and less obscure poetic language. He famously observed of free verse, which was favoured by many modernist poets, that it was ‘like playing tennis with the net down’.
Many of his poems are about the natural world, with woods and trees featuring prominently in some of his most famous and widely anthologised poems (‘The Road Not Taken’, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, ‘Birches’, ‘Tree at My Window’). Elsewhere, he was fond of very short and pithy poetic statements: see ‘Fire and Ice’ and ‘But Outer Space’, for example.