On Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay”

Dana Gioia Introduction to Poetry
Dana Gioia’s An Introduction to Poetry

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.

Every line, every image must meaningfully contribute to the whole. There is no place for a weak word to hide.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. 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 longer lines like 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.

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 a 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.