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On "Nothing Gold Can Stay"

Alfred R. Ferguson

Perhaps no single poem more fully embodies the ambiguous balance between paradisiac good and the paradoxically more fruitful human good than "Nothing Gold Can Stay," a poem in which the metaphors of Eden and the Fall cohere with the idea of felix culpa. Six versions of the poem exist, the first sent to George R. Elliott in March, 1920, in three eight-line stanzas under the title "Nothing Golden Stays." In this version the poem lacked any Edenic metaphor, reading in the three last lines, "In autumn she achieves / A still more golden blaze / But nothing golden stays." In its first published version, however, in The Yale Review (October 1923), under the present title, the poet caught both the moment of transitory perfection and the sense that the Edenic ideal must give way to earthly dying beauty:

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leafs 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.

The poem begins at once in paradox: "green is gold . . . leaf's a flower." At once, common knowledge, precise observation, and the implications of ancient associations are brought into conflicting play. Green is the first mark of spring, the assurance of life; yet in fact the first flush of vegetation for the New England birch and the willow is not green but the haze of delicate gold. Hence green is a theory or sign of spring; gold is the fact. Gold, precious and permanent as a metal, is here not considered as a metal but as a color. Its hue is described as hard to hold, as evanescent as wealth itself.

In the second couplet of the heavily end-stopped poem, paradox is emphasized again, this time in the terms of leaf and flower instead of green and gold. The earliest leaf unfolds in beauty like a flower; but in spite of its appearance, it is leaf, with all the special function of its being, instead of flower. Yet as apparent flower (the comparison is metaphoric rather than a simile—that is, leaf is flower, not leaf resembles or is like flower), the leaf exists in disguise only a moment and then moves on to its true state as leaf. In terms of the two parallel paradoxes, we find the green which appears as gold becoming the real green of leaf; the leaf which appears to be flower with all the possible color of flower becomes the true green of leaf. Our expectations are borne out: apparent gold shifts to green; apparent flower subsides into leaf. But in each case an emotional loss is involved in the changed conditions. The hue of gold with all its value associations of richness and color cannot be preserved. Nor can flower, delicate and evanescent in its beauty, last long; hence we are touched by melancholy when gold changes to green and flower changes to leaf (actually "subsides" or sinks or falls into leaf). Yet in terms of the poem, the thing which metamorphoses into its true self (gold to green of life and flower into leaf which gives life to the tree or plant) undergoes only an apparent or seeming fall. The subsiding is like the jut of water in "West-Running Brook, " a fall which is a rise into a new value. It is with this movement of paradox that Frost arrives at the final term of his argument, developing the parallel between acts within nature and acts within myth. "So Eden sank to grief" with the same imperceptible movement that transformed gold to green and made flower subside to leaf. By analogy the third term in the poem takes on the character of the first two; gold is green; flower is leaf; Eden is grief. In every case the second element is actually a value, a part of a natural process by which the cycle of fuller life is completed.

Thus by the very movement and order of the poem, we are induced to accept each change as a shift to good rather than as a decrease in value; yet each change involves a seeming diminution, a fall stressed in the verbs "subsides" and "sank" as well as in the implicit loss in color and beauty. The sense of a fall which is actually a part of an inherent order of nature, of the nature of the object, rather than being forced unintelligibly and externally, is reinforced as the final natural metaphor recapitulates the first three movements of the argument: "So dawn goes down to day." The pattern of paradox is assured; the fall is really no fall to be mourned. It is a felix culpa and light-bringing. Our whole human experience makes us aware that dawn is tentative, lovely, but incomplete and evanescent. Our expectation is that dawn does not "go down" to day, but comes up, as in Kipling's famous phrase, "like thunder," into the satisfying warmth of sunlight and full life. The hesitant perfections of gold, of flower, of Eden, and finally of dawn are linked to parallel terms which are set in verbal contexts of diminished value. Yet in each case the parallel term is potentially of larger worth. If the reader accepts green leaf and the full sunlight of day as finally more attractive than the transitory golden flower and the rose flush of a brief dawn, he must also accept the Edenic sinking into grief as a rise into a larger life. In each case the temporary and partial becomes more long-lived and complete; the natural cycle that turns from flower to leaf, from dawn to day, balances each loss by a real gain. Eden's fall is a blessing in the same fashion, an entry into fuller life and greater light. Frost, both through language and through structure, has emphasized in "Nothing Gold Can Stay" not merely the melancholy of transitory beauty—of Paradise—but an affirmation of the fortunate fall.

Here is Frost's most evocative use of the felix culpa metaphor. The subsidence, the sinking, the going down is, by the logic of the poem, a blessed increase if we are to follow the cycle of flower, leaf, bud, fruit, into the full life that includes loss, grief, and change.

from "Frost and the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall." Frost: Centennial Essays. Copyright 1973 by University Press of Mississippi.

John A. Rea

. . . the eight lines of "Nothing Gold Can Stay" are heavily end-stopped. The undesirable result is that the poem will fall apart into eight fragments unless they can somehow be made to cohere both formally and thematically. One major function of the linguistic structures is thus to help organize the poem formally, and, in fact, to organize it in a number of ways simultaneously; this is a second reason for a close examination of its formal structure. Couplet rhyme helps to counteract slightly the end-stopped lines and contributes to the "epigrammatic" quality noted by Thompson, but with no further structure the poem then consists of four disconnected chunks rather than eight—not too much real gain.

Starting with consonantism, the most striking feature is the alliterative symmetry, based on the stressed syllables, which has been extracted below beside the final version of the poem.

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.
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Notice first that only lines two and seven have all three stressed syllables in perfect alliteration within the line: Hardest-Hue-Hold, and Dawn-Down-Day. The symmetrical placement of these two lines helps bind the poem into a whole, as does the palindromic consonantism in lines four and five: Only-So-Hour, and Leaf-Subsides-Leaf (where we recall that any initial vowel [symbolized in the chart by O] will alliterate with any other initial stressed vowel).

H H H:

The arrangement down the center of the S-initial words is striking, as is the triangular placement of the L-initial ones. Only the first and last lines seem not to cohere alliteratively with the other lines, but this very lack of coherence, coupled with the lines' initial N and medial G, tends to unite them with each other (as does the recurrent word Gold, which appears only in these first and last lines and is, along with Leaf, the only recurrent stress-bearing word). Indeed, it is alliteration more than any other formal element that cements together Frost's eight end-stopped lines. The coherence of lines one and eight is further reinforced in that they are the only ones bearing initial stress (and so also the only lines not consisting of three perfect iambs), line one having an inverted first foot and line eight a truncated one. Willige claims that if there are "irregularities" of rhythm in a Frost poem, "they are likely to appear in the first line as if the poet had not yet caught its pace." This view of irregularity as a flaw is inadequate to capture its use here, as is clear from the climactic recurrence of the imperfect iamb in line eight. Alliteration also helps to associate thematically the key words Green and Gold, not only with each other but both also with Grief, just as the rhyme scheme links Leaf and Grief.

Although less immediately apparent, the stressed vowel nuclei also contribute strongly to the structure of the poem. The back round diphthongs (underlying round vowels in the abstract vowel structure of Chomsky and Halle) at the ends of lines one through four bind those lines into a unit, as do the front rising diphthongs ( underlying front vowels) at the ends of the second four lines. Philip Gerber suggests that at times Frost "concocts a pseudo-quatrain out of a pair of couplets," but he doesn't define the term "pseudo-couplet." The basic bipartite division of the poem created by these contrastive diphthong types is enhanced by other formal devices to be mentioned below. Notice that the middle stress in lines one and three is on fronting diphthongs while that in two and four is on rounded ones, for an alternating A-B-A-B effect, whereas in the second half of the poem, the first two lines have fronting diphthongs in the center and the last two have rounding ones, in an A-A-B-B arrangement.

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The three rounded diphthongs in the fourth line make a striking contrast with the three front ones of line five and establish a clear border between the two halves. Indeed, the ow-ow-aw of line four recapitulates the final vowel nuclei of lines one through three. The first and the last stress of the poem are both on the nucleus ej. It may be significant that the last couplet of the poem is the only one where the lines do not end in a consonant, so that the open syllable yields an open ended finale, or trailing-off effect.

Turning now to the syntactic, and briefly thereafter to the semantic structure, one sees that in the first quatrain the first three lines all begin with Possessive + Adjective + Noun, with the fourth line contrastively different in its structure. This A-A-A-B pattern is matched also in the second quatrain where the first three lines all have the structure Adverb + Noun + Verb + Preposition + Noun, again with a contrasting fourth line. This pattern thereby not only unifies internally the first and the second four lines, but its repetitiveness also binds the two quatrains together, as did the alliterative devices discussed earlier.

Reinforcing the rhyme, the superlative ending -st joins line one with line two while the similarly placed adverbial ending -ly ties three and four (as do the indefinite noun phrases at the ends of those lines). But line one is like three with its copula while two and four (with deleted copulas) are the only lines lacking finite verbs, for an A-B-A-B pattern exactly matching that of the stressed vowel nuclei at the middle stress of those same lines. In the first quatrain the Her of lines two and three sets them against one and four, as in an "envelope quatrain," just as is the case with the initial So of lines six and seven in the second quatrain. In the first half of the poem, each couplet constitutes a complete clause (matching the rhyme structure and diminishing the end-stopped effect), but the second half contrasts with the first in that each line is a complete clause. Frost's reading supports this structure with his slight pitch rises ( indicating non-finality) at the ends of lines one and three, compared with terminal falling pitch at the ends of all other lines; that is, there is double bar juncture in one and three versus double cross in the rest of the Smith-Trager symbolization. Notice that only the odd-numbered lines of the poem have verbs marked with the third singular ending -s (although all words in rhyme are inflectionally bare).

Lines one and three of the first quatrain, containing the nearly synonymous first and early, are each affirmations eroded by the following lines. These same lines contain copulas that link contrastive terms (green with gold, leaf with flower), and in each instance a "pay-off" in the subsequent line concludes the necessary transience of these contradictory equivalences. But in the second quatrain three synonymous verbs of motion (subside, sink, go down) bind lines five, six, and seven together against the last line with its quasi-copula stay. And the "pay-off" of these "transient" verbs is the absolute of the final line, so reminiscent of the conclusion to a deductive argument in logic and containing the poem's only overt negative: Nothing.

from "Language and Form in 'Nothing Gold Can Stay.'" Robert Frost: studies of the poetry. Ed. Kathryn Gibbs Harris. G.K. Hall & Co, 1979. Copyright 1979 by Katheryn Gibbs Harris.

Jeffrey Meyers

Another brilliant, complex and resonant short poem, "Nothing Cold Can Stay," reconsiders (like several lyrics in A Boy's Will) the perennial theme of mutability. The opening line--"Nature's first green is gold"--is extremely ambiguous. It could mean either that nature's first green in the springtime has now turned to autumnal gold or that nature's first growth is golden, or precious, because it lasts such a short time, cannot hold its color and fades as soon as the leaves fall in autumn. The fall of the leaves is connected to the Fall of Man, when "Eden sank to grief." Just as the dawn inevitably "goes down" (like the leaves) to day, so the negative thought in the title--which suggests the transience of all things--is inevitably and tragically repeated in the last line of the poem.

From Robert Frost: A Biography. Copyright 1996 by Jeffrey Meyers.

William H. Pritchard

Frost was eager to show that his excellence extended also to the shortest of figures, as in the perfectly limpid, toneless assertion of "Nothing Gold Can Stay". . . .

The elegant "subsides" gently names the process of natural changing and metaphorical couplings within the poem; as "green is gold," as "Her early leaf’s a flower" (where the contraction makes even more imperceptible the seeing of one thing in terms of another), as "dawn" changes both in fact and in words (from "dawn" to "day"). The poem is striking for the way it combines the easy delicacy of "Her early leaf’s a flower" with monumentalities about Eden and the transient fading of all such golden things, all stated in a manner that feels inevitable. 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. The poem's last word proclaims the momentariness of the "gold" that things like flowers and Eden, dawn and poems share. So the shortness of the poem is also expressive of its sense.

From Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. Copyright 1984 by William Pritchard.

Mordecai Marcus

"Nothing Gold Can Stay" combines condensed metaphor and vivid description. "Nature's first green is gold" because the pale green leaves of early spring are goldlike in their light-reflecting tints, as well as in their preciousness and promise. It is the "hardest hue to hold" because its appearance soon changes and its ideal beauty flees the mind. The green-gold leaves darken quickly, a change that symbolizes the brevity of all ideal heights. As John R. Doyle points out, the word "subsides" provides the poem's point of balance. It is a gentle replacement for an expected term of expansion or growth, and suggests a sigh of disappointment as leaf turns out to be not flower but more leaf--that is, as immature leaves are replaced by advancing ones. The fall of humanity in Eden came by such a process. Starting from a height, it plunged the race into knowledge of natural decay. Frost's view resembles Emerson's idea that being born into this world is the fall implying that the suffering and decay brought by natural processes are what we know of evil. Dawn's going "down to day" is another touch of the unexpected, for day should be life at its height, but Frost implies that at the moment when sunrise ushers in day, diminishments begin. The "Nothing" of the last line, repeated from the title, receives special emphasis; the gold that cannot stay comes to represent all perfections. Like W. B. Yeats, Frost thinks that "Man is in love and loves what vanishes."

From The Poems of Robert Frost: an explication. Copyright 1991 by Mordecai Marcus.

George F. Bagby

The basic structure here, though extraordinarily compressed, is typically synecdochic. In the first five lines Frost describes the concrete vehicle: the delicate, yellow, flowerlike beginning of a bud, followed by its "subsiding" from that brilliant, unlimited potential to the comparative green dullness, and the inevitable limitations, of the actual leaf. These lines begin the poem with some of the "delight" which comes from a Thoreauvian familiarity with the minutiae of natural process; but—were we dealing with anyone except an American nature writer—they would scarcely prepare us for the next line. Suddenly, in a startling expansion from physical part to more than physical whole—the synecdochic analogy made explicit in the "So"—Frost moves from a detail of vegetable growth to the history of human failure and suffering. We need to remind ourselves how remarkable it is to see so slight a vehicle expanded into such a weighty tenor. And yet such an expansion is, as we have just seen, not without precedent in American nature writing: Thoreau provides a clear structural and epistemological model when he reads, in the story of the "beautiful bug" in the apple-wood table, proof of the immortality of the soul. And Emerson, in a statement that serves very well to gloss "Nothing Gold Can Stay," speaks of "the catholic character which makes every leaf an exponent of the world" (Collected Works 1:125). In short, the seemingly incongruous terms of Frost's analogy have their own kind of logic; the trope reflects Frost's characteristic way of perceiving reality, an angle of vision which is rooted in a tradition of American nature writing.

The seventh line of the poem avoids anticlimax for two reasons: because it adroitly contracts the scope of the analogy from cosmogony back to the realm of Thoreauvian natural fact (a fact which, like that in the first five lines, is also implicitly synecdochic); and because the implied idea is surprising. Here, as in "Spring Pools" and "The Oven Bird," Frost suggests an almost Blakean view of natural process or experience: that it traces an essentially and consistently downward curve from its beginning. Finally, in the closing line, Frost recapitulates his postlapsarian point: "Nothing gold can stay." Again, as he does with "heaven" in "Fragmentary Blue," Frost has used a key word synecdochically. In the first line, "gold" signifies chiefly a color; by the last line, it connotes not merely yellowness but wealth or perfection in numerous senses.

The expansive potential of a poem like "Nothing Gold Can Stay"—of the synecdochic method itself—helps to explain why Frost, unlike many of his modern contemporaries, is essentially content to write a large number of short lyrics, rather than aspire to the great long poem of which Paterson is an exemplum. One might hypothesize a priori that Frost's production of numerous short poems suggests an atomistic view of reality. But Frost does not, in fact, accept such a view; even as brief a lyric as "Nothing Gold Can Stay" projects a fairly comprehensive vision of experience.

from Frost and the Book of Nature. Copyright 1993 by the University of Tennessee Press.

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