Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Nothing Gold Can Stay by Robert Frost

1st edition cover

1st edition cover

This poem is probably most familiar from S.E. Hinton’s first teen novel The Outsiders and the later film based upon it. I was aware of the poem before that, but don’t know how much my response differs. My nature studies might have more influence than where I first read it, but more about that in a bit.
The most commonly accepted interpretation of this poem is as a metaphor for how perfection doesn’t last, but that barely skims the surface. The vivid sense of color, the clear imagery, the melancholy tone with a feeling of resignation at the end is what makes it memorable for me.
Color saturates this poem, most notably gold. Some people might think of the value of gold coins or jewelry and how it can grow dull with age. For me, that clashes with the nature themes. I prefer to think of the golden light of the sun, especially in early morning or the Tindall Effect of light shining through leaves. At dawn, the sky is first streaked with yellow, even in winter and the multicolored sky soon blends into a general brightness. Dawn also brings birdsong and a sense of peace and solitude before the rest of the world wakes up. A new day can mean a fresh start in one’s outlook or the chance of more possibilities.
The Biblical reference to Eden is another type of beginning, but is also a garden, the most perfect garden ever. To describe it as having “..sank to grief,” underscores the mournful tone, we grieve for what we have lost.
Botanically, this poem is completely accurate and part of why I think it so splendid. In springtime, the buds on the awakening trees are often a yellow gold. Look at forsythia bushes, which are literally covered in gold flowers. Most trees have blossoms before coming into leaf and those flowers don’t last long at all, “..only so an hour..”. In fact, reading the poem is like a verbal version of those time lapse films which show a plant with speeded up sprouting and blooming.
The line “…leaf subsides to leaf…” is the most puzzling to me. I understand it means that the brilliance of flowers have turned into leaves, which are not as flashy, but why “subsides”? Is it the monotony of green leaves, representing the sameness of everyday life?
Frost was a keen observer of nature and used it frequently in his poems, not just as a philosophical metaphor, as in this one or the fanciful “Birches”, but also as a setting, even for a vignette like “Dust of Snow”. In fact, “The Tuft of Flowers” written eight years before, was a sort of prequel to “Nothing Gold”, offering extended thoughts on the same theme, with a more detailed, specific setting.
The long lived Frost is probably best known for his recital at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, where the wind and blindingly bright sun made things difficult for him. He was Poet Laureate of the United States (1958-59) and was awarded 4 Pulitzer Prizes and the Congressional Gold Medal, among other honors over his lifetime. In one sense, he seems a very American poet, with so many farm and rural references and at other times, such as reading today’s poem, he reveals universal truths in beautiful words.

originally published in “New Hampshire:A Poem with Notes and Grace Notes” by Henry Holt and Co. 1923

You can read the entire short poem at this link Nothing Gold can Stay

4 comments on “Nothing Gold Can Stay by Robert Frost

  1. Sue Williams
    May 19, 2014

    Jackie, I had never heard of this poem, nor do I remember it from The Outsiders.
    I went to read it and found how short it was. I’m not a big one for poetry but this piqued my interest. You reviewed it so well that I even went to find my favorite Robert Frost Poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. That poem has always stuck with me because to me it is about death. If I didn’t have miles to go before I sleep, I would go into the lovely dark deep woods and lie down and die.
    Thank you for waking up my brain on a Monday Morning. I think there might be a poem in there. I simply must read more of his poetry. He just might be my favorite poet, not as dark as Poe who is my favorite poet right now.

  2. rosyb
    May 19, 2014

    I did not know this poem – what a wonderful piece on it. I think a link to the poem itself would help though. I read the leaf subsides to leaf bit as being about the same leaves but how they change. I always think this about beech leaves – they are so translucent and beautiful like fabric when they first come out, but then they toughen up and go a bit waxy and normal green and are still lovely but more ordinary leaves. They last in their first state a bit longer than an hour though! So I read that as the same leaf subsiding into a less glorious version of itself (or something like that) almost like the first state requires too much energy and it can’t hold it – and therefore gives up and subsides into the second state. I suppose that would seem to be a bit of a life metaphor too for that matter! How we can’t hold onto that energetic first state. What I find weird is the idea of the grief and the subsiding into day (not night). So the poem is not talking about death or end of life, I don’t think. But maybe more about middle-age or the way we accept the ordinary plod of life and lose our hopes and expectations?

    Thanks for this terrific piece, Jacks.

  3. Jackie
    May 19, 2014

    Thanks for the great comments and your own interpretations, I was hoping readers would do that.
    Sue I’ll find a link to more of Frost’s poems, There are so many I like & I always find more that have an impact.
    Have now put a link to the poem itself, which I agree, I ought to have done from the beginning. Sorry.

  4. sshaver
    May 27, 2014

    Leaf on the tree subsides(falls back down) to “leaf” (mulch) on the ground? And note how the word “subside” rocks gently, the way a leaf falls, totally different from the plunge of the word “fall,” which he knew not to use.

    There wasn’t much that old fox didn’t know.

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