The Poems of Robert Frost | Study Guide

Robert Frost

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The Poems of Robert Frost | Nothing Gold Can Stay | Summary

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Summary

The poem explains that the first green that appears in spring is so pale it appears as gold, but nature can't sustain this color. Soon the "leaf subsides to leaf" as it darkens and the gold disappears. In the same way, the speaker says, "Eden sank to grief," and the golden dawn soon loses its magical light, becoming mere day. Nature, the speaker concludes, cannot hold onto its golden moments; they quickly fade.

Analysis

"Nothing Gold Can Stay" was published in New Hampshire (1923). The poem operates on a downward spiral, telling a story of fading and using the language of falling. In it, "leaf subsides," "Eden sank," and "dawn goes down." Of these images, only Eden logically experiences a fall. The other movements seem counterintuitive and require careful examination.

In early spring, newly emerged leaves are gold and, therefore, look like flowers for a very short time. Then "Leaf subsides to leaf" in a natural progression when, through the action of photosynthesis, leaves turn from gold to green. Subsides is an odd word choice here. It suggests settling down or diminishing. The words "Eden sank" include another interesting verb choice, sank. However, it aligns metrically with "subsides" of line 5, and makes sense here in describing how Adam and Even left the Garden of Eden in the biblical Book of Genesis. The story of the first humans' exile from the Garden is often described as the "fall of man." In it, after eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden and forced to a life of toil for man and pain in childbirth for the woman. In exchange, they gain knowledge.

Then in Line 7, readers get the promise of a new day, but even here is another downward movement: "So dawn goes down to day." Readers may wonder about the meaning of this; usually night falls, not day.

This little poem has become complicated. The leaf, once gold, a miracle of nature, is now green. Mankind's knowledge and mortality, the miracles of fallen human nature, are the diminished rewards of the original Adam. Dawn comes next: "So dawn goes down to day." The golden beauty that is dawn also becomes ordinary as it fades into ordinary daylight. Gold, then, is the precious fleeting manifestation of a treasured perfection. We value its beauty, at least in part, because it is so brief and so rare, as is human life. The conclusion wraps it up: "Nothing gold can stay."

The fleeting nature of beauty was a popular theme of the Romantic poets of the late 18th and 19th century. But New Hampshire was published in 1923, only a few years after the end of World War I. The death toll and massive destruction of the war was still fresh in the minds of Frost and his contemporaries. That tragic event must have felt almost as if the end of the world had come. It frankly displayed humankind on a downward trajectory. The technology of war—the result of human knowledge—changed human values and human conflict forever, many would say for the worse.

The excitement in reading Frost derives from the poet's uncanny ability to generate large-scale emotion in a loving lament for humanity, good for all times. In the case of "Nothing Gold Can Stay," it is accomplished in just eight short lines. No wonder the poem has remained over time on the critics' lists of Frost's greatest poems.

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