Robert Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay"

Updated on July 5, 2020
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Robert Frost


Introduction and Text of "Nothing Gold Can Stay

Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay” plays out in eight lines fashioned into four riming couplets. The theme that the speaker is pursuing includes the observation that on the material/physical level of being there is a continuing period of loss that remains in flux from one state to the ultimate state, for example, morning gives way to night, as does life to death.

Other pairs of opposites are early to late, joy to sorrow,—even east to west, north to south, good to bad, high to low and the pairs seem to go on endlessly in their propensity. Robert Frost’s readers are aware that the poet often relies of nature and natural events to make observational comments on his own experiences. As the poet employs his metaphorical vehicles, he engages the reader’s attention not only to the natural world but also to the very human world of the mind and heart.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

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 reads "Nothing Gold Can Stay"


One of the poet's most analyzed/anthologized poems, "Nothing Gold Can Stay" dramatizes the human desire to retain all things that heart and mind deem worthwhile or “golden.”

First Couplet: Gold Before Green

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.

The first couplet of “Nothing Gold Can Stay” claims that in the natural setting a golden color appears before the green. He uses the example of the plant whose new leaves often give off a yellowish hue before the leaf matures into its chlorophyll infused green. But then the speaker asserts that that early golden hue is the “hardest” to hang onto. That early golden glow seem to vanish quickly; thus the speaker assumes that it did so because it’s just too dang hard to keep.

However, because the speaker does not elucidate his assertion, readers will be struck at once by the fact that many contradictions to the speaker’s claim rush to mind: the redbud tree, for instance, first comes out with a reddish blossom that turns into greens leaves—not gold. Another example is the cherry blossom that displays itself in the beginning as a light pink hue—again, not golden. Yet, neither the redbud nor the cherry retain their original non-golden hues.

Thus one might take issue with the speaker’s claim regarding color and hue. Gold is not the only hue that is difficult to retain. But then metaphorically speaking, likening gold to youth, or perhaps even wealth, the speaker is on firm ground in professing that early status as golden and hard to hold onto. Trees and plants, of course, make no attempt to hold on to their early stages of development. That concept is purely a human invented one.

Second Couplet: Flowers Before Leaves

Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.

The second couplet finds the speaker claiming that flowers always appear before leaves on plants. Yet only some plants develop in that order. As mentioned the redbud and cherry both burst out in flowers first. Other examples are the Bradford pear and the forsythia. Most plants, however, do not develop the flower first; they sprout leaves, flowers, and then the fruit. Take garden vegetables, for example; these plants develop leaves, flowers, and finally fruit.

Most flowers that are used for decorative purposes grow their flowers after they have established their leaf system. The speaker's lack of total accuracy, however, can be overlooked as exaggeration and the truth of his observation accepted, as he philosophizes about the brevity of early stages of development in plants. After all, he is not offering scientific treatise.

Third Couplet: Leaf Before Leaf

Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,

So leaves give way to new leaves. Then colorful leaves, that is, flowers appear, and again give way to green. Then the golden tinged leaves further give way to the green leaves. The main concern is that the early stage of development subsides to the later ones. The speaker then alludes to the paradisal garden—the Garden of Eden—which also could not stay. An astounding observation that even paradise subsides to a lesser state of being!

However, the giving way of paradise not only resulted in a subsiding; it also transformed down to "grief." The human heart prompts this speaker to demonstrate his melancholy of wishing that things would remain in the preferred state: that youth would remain youthful, that wealth would retain its value, the golden things would continue to be golden, and that the Garden of Eden remain paradisiacal instead of sinking into grief.

Fourth Couplet: Dawn Before Day

So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

The speaker is, however, a realist, who is well aware of human folly, and he recognizes the foolishness of wishing to hold on to that vanishing gold. He knows wishing will not make it so. Thus he concludes his observations with the common transformation of dawn giving way to day. The negative direction of "going down" once again betrays the speaker's human heart filled with sentiment based on value judgment.

The speaker just cannot help himself—his senses all tell him that the negative is securely operational in the nature of all things. Despite the very human wish to hold on to what is young, rich, happy, bright, and on and on, he know such is only that, wishful thinking. Thus he slaps his ultimate concluding image on with painful certainty as he remarks, "Nothing gold can stay."

Robert Frost - Commemorative Stamp
Robert Frost - Commemorative Stamp | Source

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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