Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Nothing Gold Can Stay by Robert Frost

Yesterday's post was "The First Violet" by Karl Egon Ebert, which was completely evocative of Spring. And here in the mountains of New Hampshire, Spring is just now starting to spring: the forsythia, tulips and daffodils are out, the trees are in bud, the snowmelt is racing in the stream outside my window. And so it was that I came to today's poem choice:

Nothing Gold Can Stay
by Robert Frost

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.


On the surface, this is a poem about spring, and early growth of plants and leaves, when the first yellow greens appear on the trees. In the fifth line, the leaves are just leaves, but use of the word "subsides" shows a settling or falling sort of motion. And then the sixth line is the "turn," where Frost gets to his real topic. The subsidance of leaves reminds him of the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. Dawn is lost, but day remains. And then that last, killer line with a fatalistic ring to it, decrees that "Nothing gold can stay."

It can be taken to mean that nothing can stay gold, but I think it means that nothing can stay young. For me, the poem is about the transient nature of youth, with a hint of loss. And in my mind today, remembering this poem (I don't yet have it committed to memory, but I sure remembered the leaf references), I thought that "Nothing gold can stay" suited the brilliant-gold of the autumn leaves quite well. And so, evidently, did Robert Frost. Here are the last three lines of this poem from an earlier draft, at a time when the poem was called "Nothing Golden Stays":

In autumn she achieves
A still more golden blaze
But nothing golden stays.


Today's poem, "Nothing Gold Can Stay," was first published in 1923, in The Yale Review. But Frost played around with it for several years, and several earlier versions of it exist. The earliest of these other versions was sent to a friend in 1920, and ended as you see above.

Frost's initial focus was on the evanescent quality of new growth. Buds are golden before green. Leaves appear to be flowers before they unfold and "subside" to be leaves. Trees burst forth in color again in the fall, then the leaves subside once and for all to earth. In later revisions, he decided to universalize the poem more. By introducing the idea of Eden, Frost injects a human element into the poem without spelling it out. The sinking of Eden is a reference to the "fall of man," but it echoes the idea of transience: Eden was short-lived, but the rest of man's time on earth has been much longer. Dawn, usually the time when the sun rises, is describes in falling terms as well, but dawn "goes down" to the bright light of day. Is that really a decline, or an improvement? Again, dawn is transient and over quickly, but day lasts far longer. Perhaps, then, Eden was transient, and the longer time spent after the fall is to be preferred? Is our preference for "gold" really such a good thing? Is not the long day better than the short dawn? Is not the summer longer and more durable than the budding spring? Is it not worth our while to recognize that youth's a stuff will not endure* and to appreciate our adulthood?

The poem concludes strongly, for a number of reasons:

"Nothing gold can stay."

Why does that line pack such a wallop?

Well, first, looking at metre, it is different than all the rest. The first seven lines are essentially iambic (a two-syllable poetic foot in which an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable, ta-TUM), although the first line has an oddball because "nature" is usually read NAture, not naTURE. The first seven lines each have six syllables to them. That last line has only five. And it's trochaic, with a truncated ending. (Don't panic - it means that it has two-syllable feet that are trochees, in which a stressed syllable is followed by an unstressed syllable, TUM-ta, but that the last foot only has one syllable, which is accented, so the line reads TUM-ta TUM ta TUM.)

It's written in rhymed couplets. Not just any rhymed couplets, either: but end-stopped rhymed couplets (which is to say that each line logically pauses at the end, where the commas and periods and semicolon can be found). This could easily become sing-songy in the wrong hands, yet Frost manages his images well enough that I find myself not truly noticing the rhyminess of it on a conscious level. Particularly if I read it aloud (as one should), where the pause after a comma is not as long as that created by a semicolon or a period. Especially since the lines "So Eden sank to grief,/So dawn goes down to day" form a single sentence, and don't rhyme with one another. Instead, they create a break before that last line, which stands alone.

Second, looking at word choice, the line begins with a negative: "Nothing." While there have been hints at loss and falling and evanescence throughout the poem, creating a vaguely melancholy tone, this word is aggressively negative. Also, as written that last line can be read as a command, rather than as a commentary on loss. It is a far broader statement than any that comes before it, generalized as it is to all things (in the negative). Gold cannot stay.

A possible stretch: While folks don't usually interpret the poem this way, one could stretch so far as to say that gold in that last line might not refer to the "just-Spring" qualities in the poem (with a nod to e.e. cummings), but could refer as well to money, which one cannot, after all, take with them.

For some other commentaries on the poem, check out these essays over at Modern American Poetry. The second one, analyzing it from a linguistic point of view, is fascinating to me, although I'm sure most people don't have the patience for it.

I should note that this poem is well-known to a lot of readers of the S.E. Hinton novel, The Outsiders, which both M and S read in middle school.

"That's a sad poem," said S. "It was used in The Outsiders. Have you ever read that book?"

The answer is that I haven't. In the time and town where I grew up, once you were done with children's books, you moved on to grown-up titles. S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, first published in 1967 (when I was three), was clearly around when I was a teen, but I never heard of it until S read it in middle school. But the poem plays a key role in the book in the relationship between the characters Ponyboy and Johnny. Johnny says that the poem's about the importance of appreciating the things you loved in youth, and about staying "golden", or young. And because S so strongly associates the poem with the characters in the book, she finds it sad. And really, it is sad, or at least fatalistic.

What think you?

* The quote "Youth's a stuff will not endure" is the closing line of "O Mistress Mine" by William Shakespeare. It was a song sung by the character Feste in Twelfth Night.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

To me,this poem is symbolizing the change of seasons from winter to spring