Soon the vibrant yellow, red, and gold of autumn will begin to frost the summits, then spill slowly down the mountainsides to create a festival of color around us. But the leaf show won’t last long. Tourists will clog the Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway to catch a glimpse of the rainbow before the leaves wither and fall. It seems paradoxical that the leaves are at their most vivid just before death. This brilliant color change has always reminded me of the three magical forest groves—one of silver, one of gold, and one of diamonds—that the twelve dancing princesses journeyed through each night in my favorite Grimm’s fairy tale. When a clever suitor—with the help of an old crone—discovers their secret, the king puts an end to their nightly idyll. The moral of the story: all good things must end someday.
Robert Frost’s exquisite poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” also evokes autumn’s beauty and transience. This gem-like poem is a reflection on death, loss, and change—concepts with which we are all too familiar in this pandemic era. Frost is a consummate master of using simple language to express profound ideas. Here he uses a simple rhyme scheme, an almost sing-song trochaic trimeter, extreme concision, and brilliant word choice to convey a deep truth in memorable form—each deceptively simple rhymed couplet opening a window into another philosophical insight. The contrast between this simplistic form and the complex ideas it expresses creates a sense of surprise and delight. The poem’s music—with the repeated assonance of e’s in leaf/green/Eden/grief, o’s with gold/goes/so/hold, and alliteration of d’s in dawn/down/day—add to our pleasure. Poetic magic for certain!
The poem is essentially an argument, presenting a collection of evidence that leads us to inevitable acceptance of the poet’s thesis, contained in the title and last line. We begin at the beginning: in early spring, when trees first leaf out, “Nature’s first green” appears as pale, spring-green buds that shine gold in the sunlight. The poet acknowledges that this “gold” state is hard to hang onto, foreshadowing the poem’s conclusion. After the golden unfolding of new leaves comes flowers and catkins, but these quickly fade and give way to more humdrum green growth. With “but only so an hour” we begin to realize that “Nature” is symbolic of all life, so that “an hour” represents any short time period of rapid change. Gold—the color of treasure, precious coins, wedding rings—becomes a metaphor for all perfect beauty, youth, and romance. But these are transitory, gone with the wind like falling leaves. This tension between holding and losing lends the poem a power far beyond its tiny size.
In line 5, “Then leaf subsides to leaf” the surprising word “subsides” sets the poem’s entire tone and direction. “Subside” means to “tend downward, to sink or fall to the bottom.” Rather than growing or expanding through the summer as we might expect, here the tree’s devolution begins immediately after its youthful bloom, as its energy is dissipated in the production of more leaves—whose ultimate end is to change color, die, and fall. The next two lines, both beginning “So…/ So…” confirm the inevitability and repetitive nature of this coming death.
“So Eden sank to grief” (l. 10) hearkens to the beginning of all time—to the first Spring—and brings humans into the discussion. This unavoidable disappointment and decay involve humankind as well as the natural world, and has been occurring since time immemorial. Frost’s allusion to the Garden of Eden confirms the cosmic connection of our contemporary tree with the tree of knowledge, and the loss of spring flowers with mankind’s loss of innocence. The “fall” of golden leaves echoes the Fall of Man—which Christians believe is the root cause of our existential pain—imbuing the poem with an eternal dimension. In this relatively bleak vision, the future resurrection—the reassuring knowledge that the “fall” of leaves is only temporary and that fresh, new leaves will replace them next year—is not mentioned.
The diction of death and decay compounds with “sank” and “goes down” in lines 6 and 7. The ecstatic, golden beauty of the dawn dissolves into the glaring, less subtle light of day. This trend culminates in the seemingly hopeless “nothing” of the final line. Having built his argument from the ground up, the poet now states the clear and incontrovertible fact: these golden seasons cannot last; our most beautiful, joyful moments of ecstasy are as ephemeral as the blushing rose or the golden dawn. Without sentimentality, the poet presents this as an unvarnished fact to be accepted. While there is a feeling of resignation at the end of this poem, it is somehow comforting to know that this mutability has been true everywhere and at all times. Youth, beauty, friendship—all, like life itself, are transitory and can only be fully enjoyed in their time of flourishing.
Robert Frost (1874-1963) was an American poet known for his realistic depictions of rural life, which he used to explore complex social and philosophical themes. Over the course of his career he received four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry and was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1960 for his poetic works. When published in his 1923 collection New Hampshire, this poem was placed just after “For E.T.,” Frost’s elegy to his dear friend Edward Thomas. Thomas was a literary critic and aspiring poet whom Frost met in London in 1913, but who was killed in 1917 during World War I.
In a testament to this brief, graceful poem’s staying power, it is featured in S.E. Hinton’s 1967 novel The Outsiders, as well as in two recent Japanese manga. The 2014 hit “Stay Gold,” by the Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit, alludes to this poem both in its title and in the lines “the sun…./It shone like gold /But just as the moon, it shall stray/ So dawn goes down today/ No gold can stay.”
“Nothing Gold Can Stay” is an elegant expression of the truism that life’s most wonderful experiences are impermanent. We grow old; we lose our jobs; we become infirm; glaciers melt; our loved ones pass away. Loss happens to everyone. But the flipside of the knowledge that life is transitory is the awareness that each fleeting moment of joy, communion, and hilarity we share should be treasured, because we know it can’t last.Once we accept this tragic truth, these moments become that much more precious. Having lost so much recently—hugging, gathering, attending concerts, dancing—we relish the bittersweet memory of these lost moments more than ever.
Perhaps this is why our mountain views are so deeply calming and comforting. The mountains touch our souls because they are permanent… at least for now.
Nothing Gold Can Stay
By Robert Frost, 1923
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.