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.
There is nothing like a paradox to entice the mind to discover a suggested secret. Such paradoxes and such secrets lie at the heart of many good poems, and “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost stands among them, with paradoxes that are alluring and a secret that is sobering.
The color green isn’t gold (or is the reference to the treasurable quality of both the bright green of springtime and the bright precious metal?). Like the prized commodity and its connotations, this first golden green of Nature is certainly hard to hold or difficult to keep, with a fleeting, flashing verdure that is here one day and gone the next.
A leaf isn’t a flower (or is it a comparison to the delicate, radiant, flower-like beauty of the first unfolding leaves?). Provocative as it is, what is clear is that there is something exquisite being denoted—some beauty that flashes forth even as it vanishes, lasting no longer than even an hour for all intents and purposes.
A leaf doesn’t transform into a leaf (isn’t there, however, a qualitative difference between a leaf when it is new and when it is old?). But it is in that brief hour of a season that leaves subside to simply leaves; that is, the lustrous, unfurling, lush, verdant green of spring collapses into the hardy, sunbaked, and customary green of summer. So it goes every year, even as the old legend goes that Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden only an hour before they fell.
Dawn doesn’t go down to day (or does it?). If one judges by the apparent passage of the sun, it climbs every day from dawn’s eastern horizon up to the zenith. But though the sun rises and ascends in the daytime sky, the precious light of dawn loses something as it gains the blinding brilliance of high noon. There is subsidence here as well—a going down, a loss, a falling away from the bright blush of a beginning to the broad fact of the way things are.
Gold does stay, in fact. It’s one of the more enduring elements (but isn’t there a “golden” character that is passing, like the “golden ages” of the past?). Despite the endurance of gold itself, nothing “gold” can stay, from luminous leaves, to rosy-fingered dawn, to our own fresh and sweet innocence. All is seasonal and subsides. All is destined to fall. All that lives must die. Everything loses its luster. And though springtime is a period bursting and glistening with associations of hope and joy, it also bears a cast of sadness: the sober reminder that the glory and unpolluted purity of leaves, grass, blossoms, birds, and young souls will all be eventually sullied and sunken. Early stages are golden, but that precious quality is all too brief. Which, as a final paradox, is what makes it so absolutely wonderful.
Robert Frost’s brilliant poem is beautiful specifically because it is short, participating through its brevity in the mystery it both marvels at and mourns over. And its message or meditation is one that belongs in every heart as life is lived and the seasons pass, rejoicing over the newness of things and reflecting on the dulling matters of course that wear on everything under the sun.
Time is both precious and short, and but for the wisdom of such nuggets of golden poetry, many might fail in the challenge to recall and realize how much we have lost, how much we have, and how much we stand to miss.
The series “What Good Is Poetry?” looks at poems that, once memorized, bestow a gift: an antidote to the cynicism of our age.
Sean Fitzpatrick serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy, a boarding school in Elmhurst, Pa., where he teaches humanities. His writings on education, literature, and culture have appeared in a number of journals including Crisis Magazine, Catholic Exchange, and the Imaginative Conservative.