The eight lines of “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” written by Robert Frost.
In a recent author interview, I explained that one of my favorite poems is “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost. Shortly after the interview published, my friend and fellow blogger Aquileana of La Audacia de Aquiles commented to me that she had not heard of this particular poem.
Upon reading it, she was as fascinated with it as I have been since high school. I first came across the poem while reading the book The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (more on that later). As Aquileana and I chatted about the poem, it became clear that there was a lot to discuss, from the imagery within the brilliant lines to Robert Frost’s use of rhyme and meter. Below is our collaborative analysis of “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”
About the Publication of ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’
Robert Frost’s eight-line poem first appeared in his book New Hampshire in 1923. The book later won a Pulitzer Prize in 1924.
A young Robert Frost.
Perhaps even more amazing is that the American poet went on to win three more Pulitzer Prizes during his lifetime, in 1931, 1937, and 1943! He lived from 1874-1963.
At the time that “Nothing Gold Can Stay” first published, Frost was 48 years old. Other short poems in the volume New Hampshire included “Dust of Snow” and “Fire and Ice.”
Other poets that are masterful at the short poem format, which requires the writer to be concise and evoke imagery in few words, include Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.
“Nothing Gold Can Stay” has only 40 words and uses simple words, but many messages exist within it.
Summary and Imagery in ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’
The First Half
While there are no words beyond two syllables in this poem, and the majority of them are monosyllabic, when taken together the lines have the ability to bring about strong emotions in readers. At first glance, the poem is simple, yet it steeps deep with imagery. It is tempting to characterize Robert Frost’s creation as a nature poem, and you would not be wrong in doing so, but it is so much more.
The beginning image is the start of spring when nature is first blossoming from the earth. The first four lines describe the flourishing of a leaf. As Frost writes, “Her early leaf’s a flower,” with “Her” meaning Mother Nature. He explains that the leaf turns from green to gold as it blooms.
However, this blossoming is short in length, as explained by the fourth line, “But only so an hour.” This line is where the beautiful scene of flourishing nature takes a turn. Notice that it does so exactly halfway through the poem.
The Second Half
The last four lines of “Nothing Gold Can Stay” explain what happens after nature’s departure from gold. Once the flowering ends, after only an hour, “Then leaf subsides to leaf.”
The leaves turn from green to gold in Victoria, BC, and elsewhere. ©2016 Christy Birmingham
Of course, the poet chose the words in this line well as he suggests with the repetition of the word “leaf” that the leaf was not meant to stay as a gold-colored flower but instead to return to its leaf form. The leaf outlives the flower. From the perspective of nature alone, this reasoning certainly makes sense as seasons turn and the blossoming comes and goes, with leaves lasting longer than the flowers.
But, there is a deeper meaning in this poem than how nature behaves in the world. The truth of this statement becomes clear at line six when the image of Eden is presented to the surprise of the reader.
Here we see that the clever Robert Frost is depicting three kinds of cycles in his poem. Firstly is the cycle of nature throughout the year, as shown by the seasons. The second type of cycle is in mythical form, with the image of Eden, which is symbolic of humankind. In both cycles, there is a moment of achieving perfection, followed by a descent into a less-impressive quantity.
Indeed, the change from green to gold is about more than color alone. It also represents a shift in mood, with the word “grief” in line six depicting the transition as being unfavorable and causing misery.
At the line “So dawn goes down to day,” we as the readers are taken back to nature and the daily cycle. Aha, here is a third cycle! It is the daily fluctuation of nature, from daytime to nighttime, and back again. And then, how amazing that the final line is “Nothing gold can stay,” which is the same as the title. This final line creates a cycle of the poem too, thanks to the use of repetition. Very clever, Mr. Frost.
What Does Gold Represent in ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’?
The poem’s reference to gold is not like the element in the Periodic Table but instead gold refers to the finest things in life, like a sunset or the laughter of a baby. Gold is a symbol of all that is beautiful and of the highest worth.