On “Nothing Gold Can Stay”
Alfred R. Ferguson
Perhaps no single poem more fully embodies the ambiguous balance between paradisiac good and the paradoxically more fruitful human good than “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” a poem in which the metaphors of Eden and the Fall cohere with the idea of felix culpa. Six versions of the poem exist, the first sent to George R. Elliott in March, 1920, in three eight-line stanzas under the title “Nothing Golden Stays.” In this version the poem lacked any Edenic metaphor, reading in the three last lines, “In autumn she achieves / A still more golden blaze / But nothing golden stays.” In its first published version, however, in The Yale Review (October 1923), under the present title, the poet caught both the moment of transitory perfection and the sense that the Edenic ideal must give way to earthly dying beauty:
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leafs 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.
The poem begins at once in paradox: “green is gold . . . leaf’s a flower.” At once, common knowledge, precise observation, and the implications of ancient associations are brought into conflicting play. Green is the first mark of spring, the assurance of life; yet in fact the first flush of vegetation for the New England birch and the willow is not green but the haze of delicate gold. Hence green is a theory or sign of spring; gold is the fact. Gold, precious and permanent as a metal, is here not considered as a metal but as a color. Its hue is described as hard to hold, as evanescent as wealth itself.
In the second couplet of the heavily end-stopped poem, paradox is emphasized again, this time in the terms of leaf and flower instead of green and gold. The earliest leaf unfolds in beauty like a flower; but in spite of its appearance, it is leaf, with all the special function of its being, instead of flower. Yet as apparent flower (the comparison is metaphoric rather than a simile—that is, leaf is flower, not leaf resembles or is like flower), the leaf exists in disguise only a moment and then moves on to its true state as leaf. In terms of the two parallel paradoxes, we find the green which appears as gold becoming the real green of leaf; the leaf which appears to be flower with all the possible color of flower becomes the true green of leaf. Our expectations are borne out: apparent gold shifts to green; apparent flower subsides into leaf. But in each case an emotional loss is involved in the changed conditions. The hue of gold with all its value associations of richness and color cannot be preserved. Nor can flower, delicate and evanescent in its beauty, last long; hence we are touched by melancholy when gold changes to green and flower changes to leaf (actually “subsides” or sinks or falls into leaf). Yet in terms of the poem, the thing which metamorphoses into its true self (gold to green of life and flower into leaf which gives life to the tree or plant) undergoes only an apparent or seeming fall. The subsiding is like the jut of water in “West-Running Brook, ” a fall which is a rise into a new value. It is with this movement of paradox that Frost arrives at the final term of his argument, developing the parallel between acts within nature and acts within myth. “So Eden sank to grief” with the same imperceptible movement that transformed gold to green and made flower subside to leaf. By analogy the third term in the poem takes on the character of the first two; gold is green; flower is leaf; Eden is grief. In every case the second element is actually a value, a part of a natural process by which the cycle of fuller life is completed.
Thus by the very movement and order of the poem, we are induced to accept each change as a shift to good rather than as a decrease in value; yet each change involves a seeming diminution, a fall stressed in the verbs “subsides” and “sank” as well as in the implicit loss in color and beauty. The sense of a fall which is actually a part of an inherent order of nature, of the nature of the object, rather than being forced unintelligibly and externally, is reinforced as the final natural metaphor recapitulates the first three movements of the argument: “So dawn goes down to day.” The pattern of paradox is assured; the fall is really no fall to be mourned. It is a felix culpa and light-bringing. Our whole human experience makes us aware that dawn is tentative, lovely, but incomplete and evanescent. Our expectation is that dawn does not “go down” to day, but comes up, as in Kipling’s famous phrase, “like thunder,” into the satisfying warmth of sunlight and full life. The hesitant perfections of gold, of flower, of Eden, and finally of dawn are linked to parallel terms which are set in verbal contexts of diminished value. Yet in each case the parallel term is potentially of larger worth. If the reader accepts green leaf and the full sunlight of day as finally more attractive than the transitory golden flower and the rose flush of a brief dawn, he must also accept the Edenic sinking into grief as a rise into a larger life. In each case the temporary and partial becomes more long-lived and complete; the natural cycle that turns from flower to leaf, from dawn to day, balances each loss by a real gain. Eden’s fall is a blessing in the same fashion, an entry into fuller life and greater light. Frost, both through language and through structure, has emphasized in “Nothing Gold Can Stay” not merely the melancholy of transitory beauty—of Paradise—but an affirmation of the fortunate fall.
Here is Frost’s most evocative use of the felix culpa metaphor. The subsidence, the sinking, the going down is, by the logic of the poem, a blessed increase if we are to follow the cycle of flower, leaf, bud, fruit, into the full life that includes loss, grief, and change.
from “Frost and the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall.” Frost: Centennial Essays. Copyright © 1973 by University Press of Mississippi.