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“Nothing Gold Can Stay”: Robert Frost sees Eden, and something more


Lucas Cranach der Ältere | PD

Anna O'Neil - published on 06/08/17

But it looks like this poem isn’t about how beauty fades, and nothing can be done, after all.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

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. – Robert Frost

Frost’s little piece reads like a nursery rhyme with a depressing moral, at first glance. “Nothing gold can stay”–is he saying that nothing good lasts, that everything beautiful eventually withers and dies? We’re all tempted to believe that, especially when we’re confronted with the reality of death. But at the core of the poem is a hidden message of burning hope.

“Nature’s first green is gold,” he says, and he’s quite right. Every plant puts out flowers first, and leaves second. The golden forsythias in early Spring are breathtaking, until the flowers drop off, and then they become ordinary green, pretty, but nothing special. It’s just the natural progression of the year.

Not just of the year, though. That’s what happened to mankind, too. The Garden of Eden was the Spring of mankind, but it didn’t last forever. Man fell, and “Eden sank to grief.” Suffering and winter entered the world. Spring reminds us of that original, short-lived paradise, and it’s bittersweet, because now we know “nothing gold can stay.”

Except then, Frost throws a really confusing image into the mix. “Dawn goes down to day.” I wanted to say, “Wait a second. Dawn goes up. The sun rises up.” This metaphor is flat-out inaccurate, because as the the sun rises, it grows in heat and brightness. What’s going on here?

The image of a flower doesn’t match the theme of diminishing beauty either, actually. If that’s what Frost wanted to say, he should have talked about ice that melts, or a fire that reduces a log to ash, or any one of a million images. But the thing about a flower is that it isn’t attractive for its own sake; it’s trying to attract a pollinator. Every fruit and seed has to begin with a flower. That flower produces fruit, which in turn, produces many new flowers.

So it’s really starting to look like this poem isn’t about how beauty fades, and nothing can be done. Frost has chosen his images with meticulous care, and one of them is so subtle that it tends to be totally ignored–the idea of the cycle of the years. A single year starts cold, warms up, and cools down again, and that in itself would be enough of an image to make us despair. But the years follow a cycle, so that no winter lasts forever. You can’t talk about winter without implying, somehow, that spring will follow after.

Frost brought up the Garden of Eden, and mankind’s descent into winter, and told us that “Nothing gold can stay.” In nature, that is true. But one day, our winter will pass into the everlasting Spring of the Second Coming, where nature’s gold will be restored, and will not pass away. The sun will rise upon the world, and the flower will produce fruit that lasts.

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