Great art and great writing have the power both to make you feel and to make you think, and the poem "Nothing Gold Can Stay" by Robert Frost is remarkable because it does both of these things so effectively in only 8 short lines:
"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."(1)
Sad and beautiful, the poem confronts the reader with some of the most complex aspects of the human experience: mortality, the fleetingness of youth and innocence, and the fact that all good things at some point must come to an end. In this article I will analyze each of the major themes in turn, and follow that with a technical analysis of the poem.
1) The Fleetingness of Youth
This is a theme that is found throughout the poem but specifically in lines 1-4 and line 7. Here, we see youth represented by Nature's first color (gold), the "early leaf" and the dawn. In each of these cases, the poem emphasizes the beauty of youth but also its fleeting nature: "Nature's first green" is also the "hardest hue to hold", the earliest leaf is a beautiful flower but "only so an hour", and the "dawn goes down to day". Youth, while one of life's most beautiful times, cannot be held onto.
2) Mortality and The Shortness of Life
The "cycle of life" is alluded to in the poem and although in its literal sense the poem discusses only the life-cycle of the leaf and of the day, the reader is forced to look past this and at the cycle of his or her own life. The most powerful example of this theme is found in the line "then leaf subsides to leaf." One leaf is replaced by another just as newborns replace those who grow old and die, and that is the case for every species on our planet, including us, as every one of us knows. It is an extremely powerful concept, conveyed in one single line.
3) Loss of Innocence
The theme of "loss of innocence" is often picked out of this poem by readers and I think this is a result of two things. The first of these, I believe, is a tendency to associate youth with innocence and, as a result, to pick this theme out of the same references to dawn, the "early leaf" and Nature's early colors, discussed earlier. The second reason, I believe, comes from the reference, in the sixth line, to "Eden". In Christian mythology, Eden is described as a beautiful garden in which Adam and Eve (who Christians believe were the first humans) lived in total innocence before eating from the Tree of Knowledge (a disobedient act) and becoming corrupted as a result. For Christians, "Eden" represents innocence, so it would not be surprising to see them read a double-meaning into the line "so Eden sank to grief" - seeing it not only as a description as a loss of a beautiful garden (or, more generally, beauty itself), but the loss of human innocence as well.
4) "All Good Things Must End"
This theme is likely the least subtle one found in this poem, and the one most easily read in the final line "nothing gold can stay". Interestingly though, while the theme itself is simple and easily picked out, it is at the same time extremely complex in that what it means to the reader will be determined greatly by the individual's life, values and concerns. The truth of the matter is that each person's "gold" is different. For someone who lives in a war-torn country this poem may bring to mind the fleetingness of peace, for the lonely perhaps the loss of a love, or for the elderly it may bring to mind the shortening of their remaining years. The ability of such a small poem to speak to so many people on a personal level is, in my mind, what truly makes it great.
Although this poem is short, it makes use of a number of poetic techniques, ranging from the simple to the complex. The rhyme scheme itself is simple (aabbccdd), however within the lines themselves we see alliteration used a number of times ("green/gold", "hardest/hue/hold", and "dawn/down/day"). There is also generous use of personification - for example we have leaf "subsiding" to leaf, Nature showing ownership of colors (first line) that it attempts to "hold" (second line), and Eden (a mythical place) "sinking to grief" (sixth line).
Allegory is also found throughout the poem. The discussions of the life cycle of leaves, days and seasons, rather than being meant to be taken literally, are used to conjure up much more complex themes in the mind of readers regarding the cycles of their own lives. Finally, in what is possibly the most subtle and complex technical detail (and my personal favorite), we have the use of irony— in that a poem about the shortness of life and the fleetingness of youth and all things good is itself short and fleeting at only 8 lines.
This poem is considered by many to be one of Frost's best and to me that praise is well-deserved. It manages to convey a great deal of emotion and complexity in only a few lines and has the power to speak to many readers in a way that is personal to them.