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
Robert Frost was born in San Francisco, but moved as a boy to Lawrence, Massachusetts after his father died. Resettled in New England, Frost’s mother became a Swedenborgian and baptized her son in the religion. Though Frost left the church as an adult, I think that much of his poetry reflects the Swedenborgian tenet that everything in the natural world has a spiritual dimension. Frost lived and was first published in Britain, but he has long been considered New England’s unofficial poet laureate. Like Norman Rockwell, our other popular chronicler who’s undergone a bit of revisionist biography lately, Frost is really neither folksy nor simple.
Dark, conflicting, and deep channels of insight run through just about everything he wrote. ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’ is a case in point. It moves at the serene pace and with the emphatic rhythms of a hymn played on a pipe organ. Though it’s laying out a case, it’s much more sermon than argument. And, like so many of Frost’s poems, it’s steeped in the truths of nature.
Gold is the first real color of spring in New England. I saw it for the first time this year (weeks later than usual) in the wands of our old willow tree. Next, I caught it flashing at the feeder; spring had repainted the drab brown of the male American goldfinch a bright, come-hither lemon. A day or two later, it turned our forsythia chrome yellow. Then it burst into life among the daffodils: a blatant, seemingly unstoppable color.
Though, as usual, Frost gets his nature right. The yellow doesn’t last. The forsythia bush with “its early leaf a flower” is already subsiding into leaf. Then comes Frost’s great kicker: “So Eden fell to grief.” From examining the delicate particulars of early blooms, the poem suddenly expands to encompass the most monumental of subjects: the fall of man. The final couplet is like an “amen.” The sermon is ending. “So dawn goes down to day.” The last chords of the hymn echo back through the pews of this short, perfectly constructed poem: “Nothing gold can stay.”
I’ve loved Frost’s poems since childhood when I took them at face value. A boy swinging on birch branches. A spider on a flower. A horse stopping in a snow-filled woods. Now they seem much more complex — and deeper — and more beautiful. Now they’ve become for me what Frost, towards the end of his life, proclaimed a poem should be: “A momentary stay against confusion.” What’s your favorite Frost poem — and has it changed for you, too, over the years? Write to me in the comments section below. I’d enjoy hearing from you!
For more poems by and information about Frost, please visit: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/192