In a recent author interview, I explained that one of my favorite poems is “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost. Shortly after the interview published, my friend and fellow blogger Aquileana of La Audacia de Aquiles commented to me that she had not heard of this particular poem.
Upon reading it, she was as fascinated with it as I have been since high school. I first came across the poem while reading the book The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (more on that later). As Aquileana and I chatted about the poem, it became clear that there was a lot to discuss, from the imagery within the brilliant lines to Robert Frost’s use of rhyme and meter. Below is our collaborative analysis of “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”
About the Publication of ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’
Robert Frost’s eight-line poem first appeared in his book New Hampshire in 1923. The book later won a Pulitzer Prize in 1924.
Perhaps even more amazing is that the American poet went on to win three more Pulitzer Prizes during his lifetime, in 1931, 1937, and 1943! He lived from 1874-1963.
At the time that “Nothing Gold Can Stay” first published, Frost was 48 years old. Other short poems in the volume New Hampshire included “Dust of Snow” and “Fire and Ice.”
Other poets that are masterful at the short poem format, which requires the writer to be concise and evoke imagery in few words, include Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.
“Nothing Gold Can Stay” has only 40 words and uses simple words, but many messages exist within it.
Summary and Imagery in ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’
The First Half
While there are no words beyond two syllables in this poem, and the majority of them are monosyllabic, when taken together the lines have the ability to bring about strong emotions in readers. At first glance, the poem is simple, yet it steeps deep with imagery. It is tempting to characterize Robert Frost’s creation as a nature poem, and you would not be wrong in doing so, but it is so much more.
The beginning image is the start of spring when nature is first blossoming from the earth. The first four lines describe the flourishing of a leaf. As Frost writes, “Her early leaf’s a flower,” with “Her” meaning Mother Nature. He explains that the leaf turns from green to gold as it blooms.
However, this blossoming is short in length, as explained by the fourth line, “But only so an hour.” This line is where the beautiful scene of flourishing nature takes a turn. Notice that it does so exactly halfway through the poem.
The Second Half
The last four lines of “Nothing Gold Can Stay” explain what happens after nature’s departure from gold. Once the flowering ends, after only an hour, “Then leaf subsides to leaf.”
Of course, the poet chose the words in this line well as he suggests with the repetition of the word “leaf” that the leaf was not meant to stay as a gold-colored flower but instead to return to its leaf form. The leaf outlives the flower. From the perspective of nature alone, this reasoning certainly makes sense as seasons turn and the blossoming comes and goes, with leaves lasting longer than the flowers.
But, there is a deeper meaning in this poem than how nature behaves in the world. The truth of this statement becomes clear at line six when the image of Eden is presented to the surprise of the reader.
Here we see that the clever Robert Frost is depicting three kinds of cycles in his poem. Firstly is the cycle of nature throughout the year, as shown by the seasons. The second type of cycle is in mythical form, with the image of Eden, which is symbolic of humankind. In both cycles, there is a moment of achieving perfection, followed by a descent into a less-impressive quantity.
Indeed, the change from green to gold is about more than color alone. It also represents a shift in mood, with the word “grief” in line six depicting the transition as being unfavorable and causing misery.
At the line “So dawn goes down to day,” we as the readers are taken back to nature and the daily cycle. Aha, here is a third cycle! It is the daily fluctuation of nature, from daytime to nighttime, and back again. And then, how amazing that the final line is “Nothing gold can stay,” which is the same as the title. This final line creates a cycle of the poem too, thanks to the use of repetition. Very clever, Mr. Frost.
What Does Gold Represent in ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’?
The poem’s reference to gold is not like the element in the Periodic Table but instead gold refers to the finest things in life, like a sunset or the laughter of a baby. Gold is a symbol of all that is beautiful and of the highest worth.
Golden are dawn, the spring season, and the Garden of Eden. But the beauty is only temporary, with night following morning, fall and winter following summer and the plummet of Eve. As for the once-golden flower, it returns to a green leaf and eventually dies.
Interestingly, “Nothing Gold Can Stay” includes two paradoxes at the start. The parallel paradoxes are “green is gold” and “leaf’s a flower.” They are paradoxical because they seem to make sense but do not.
With “green is gold,” it is not possible to be both the color green and gold at the same time, right? And how can a leaf be a flower too? But, indeed, it is possible if you look at these descriptions as being part of a cycle, where green turns to gold and leaf turns to flower. But, the bloom is fast, as per the line “But only so an hour.”
Why Does Poet Frost Mention Eden in His Poem?
The line “So Eden sank to grief” refers to the fall of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden in the Bible. Eve disobeyed the order not to eat the fruit and when she did it resulted in her banishment from the Garden forever. This activity is said to be responsible for the grief that humankind has felt since that moment.
While Eden began as a golden paradise, it soon became a source of pain and grief. It is an example of the fleeting nature of gold, meaning the good things in life do not stay amazing but instead turn within a short time to something less pleasing.
Also, Eden is mentioned as a symbol of mortality. Humans start out youthful, grow to become adults, live to be elderly, and then die.
The golden time is transitory, which makes it even more important to us. We must not miss the moment that the gold is shining! Adam and Even enjoyed their youth and then came the fall from Eden, marking the end of this phase for them.
Identifying the Speaker in ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’
The speaker of the poem is neither male nor female. Often analyses of the poem use “he” because the poet is a man. However, you will find no personal notations in the poem.
The objective voice makes sense as the poem is more about observation than about any personal happenings or views of the speaker. Or, perhaps we can look at the readers as being the real speaker here.
Applying the Golden Message to Today
While “Nothing Gold Can Stay” first published in 1923, its symbolism is still relevant today. The golden message in the poem is that even the most beautiful thing on Earth cannot stay gold forever.
While on one hand, this point is a sad one as we won’t have gorgeous things around us forever, there is another way to look at it. The alternative viewpoint is that the fleeting nature of beauty and life provides us with a reminder to cherish things while they are still alive, whether it be nature, people, animals, or something else. Everything fades and we would be wise to appreciate them while they are still here.
For example, consider the line “So Eden sank to grief.” While Eve ate the fruit, which punished all the generations to come, it is not entirely a tragedy in that the start of history was set, and people born after that would understand guilt and sin – including us! There is a positive point to the sorrow.
While that which is “gold” (in the poem, the images are early spring leaves, flowers, Garden of Eden, and dawn) does not stay in this perfect form forever, there is an upside. Once we know that all will fade one day, then we can take efforts to appreciate it more in the current moment. In other words, carpe diem, a Latin phrase meaning “seize the day.”
Also, the world will still go on to regrow leaves, continue the seasons, etc. Plus, if things didn’t fade then they wouldn’t be so amazing, would they?
My Personal Connection to This Poem
On a personal note, this poem has been one I have cherished since high school, as I mentioned earlier. I adored the poem not only for its simplicity and beautiful imagery but also for the context in which I learned about it.
The poem was featured in the 1967 book The Outsiders, which is still one of my all-time favorite reads. The book was part of our English class reading list. I remember having countless conversations with my friend Deb about author S.E. Hinton’s characters, including Ponyboy Michael Curtis, Johnny Cade, Dallas Winston, and Sodapop Curtis.
Here is the scene in The Outsiders when Ponyboy recites the poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay”:
Did you know that S.E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was only 16 years old? The movie adaptation of the book, which had the same name, was released in 1983 and featured many young actors we would later know very well, including Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Ralph Macchio, and C. Thomas Howell.
‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’ in The Outsiders: What Does the Poem Mean?
In the context of The Outsiders, Frost’s poem is like a shadow of the book’s plot. Two of the main characters (Johnny and Ponyboy) start young and innocent at the book’s beginning but lose their purity by the final pages. The inclusion of the poem in the novel foreshadows the ending to come, although I won’t spoil who or what takes the turn for the worst at the end, in case you are not familiar with The Outsiders. The “first green” of the poem is like the innocence of Ponyboy and Johnny.
Another Movie Reference to the Poem
Many years after I welcomed The Outsiders and “Nothing Gold Can Stay” into my life, I watched the movie The Fault in Our Stars. You can imagine my surprise when the character Hazel recited Robert Frost’s poem in one scene of the movie.
While the poem’s inclusion in the movie, which is based on the John Green book, is minor, there was no way I would miss it. In the book, the poem’s mention comes in a scene when Hazel starts to lose hope for the future:
“It seemed to me that I had already seen everything pure and good in the world, and I was beginning to suspect that even if death didn’t get in the way, the kind of love that Augustus and I share could never last. “So dawn goes down to day,” the poet wrote, “Nothing gold can stay.”
~ Excerpt from The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (page 278).
Now, let’s move from an analysis of the poem to its style and form.
The Poetic Style & Form of ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’
Note how precise the phrasing is in the Robert Frost poem. There are no unnecessary words, which is quite the feat given the rhyming lines! For the rhyme scheme, it is AABBCCDD.
Each pair of lines rhymes with one another (A with A, B with B, and so forth). AA is “gold” and “hold,” BB is “flower” and “hour,” CC is “leaf” and “grief,” and DD is “day” and “stay.” There are eight verses in total.
The stanzas of two rhyming lines are called Rhyming Couplets. Examples are “leaf” / “grief,” and “gold” / “hold.” If you read aloud the poem it is a fun one, given these rhymes at the end of the lines. To be a proper Rhyming Couplet, the lines must be about the same length and relate to the same image.
Analyzing these couplets in more detail, it becomes apparent that the poem takes the form of iambic trimeter. Thank you Aquileana for helping me fully understand iamb! Iambic trimeter means:
Iamb = a metrical foot that contains one unstressed syllable before a stressed syllable, such as “then leaf” or “her hard”); Iamb is clear in lines 2 – 7
Trimeter = three iambs per line
The iambic trimeter applies to lines 2-6. While not every line is iambic, there are three stressed syllables per line. Perhaps Frost used this poetic style as a way to make it have a repetitive quality to it when read, which shadows the cyclical theme within the poem’s message.
Alliteration in the Poem
Throughout “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” you will find examples of alliteration. This term refers to the same sound or letter at the beginning of words that are close to or beside one another. The alliteration in the poem is as follows:
Line one – green and gold
Line two – hardest, hue, and hold
Line five – leaf and leaf
Line six – so and sank
Line seven – dawn, down, and day
The repetition of sounds is useful for attracting readers’ attention to certain parts of the poem. In line one, for example, gold is the second “g” and considered to be of higher importance than green.
Here is a good video about the rhyme scheme and alliteration in “Nothing Gold Can Stay”:
More about Poetic Meter: A Trochee
Both the first and last lines contain a trochee. This particular metrical foot has a stressed syllable with an unstressed or weak one behind it. A trochee is an iamb in reverse! Two examples are “Nature” and “Nothing.”
Looking further at lines one and eight, the syllables in both lines have the same sound: “N.” The similarities between these lines correspond to the cyclical theme of the poem. Generally, a trochee is useful when a writer wants a reader to pay particular notice to a word or, in Frost’s case, to a certain “N” sound.
Change in Metaphor in ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’
But, although only lines one and eight of the poem contain the word “gold,” the meaning of this word is quite different from the start to the end. At the start, gold represents hope, while at the end, after imagery of loss, the association with gold is more one of gratitude than anything else.
The ending encourages the reader to make the most of the golden moments as they are short in duration. There is both an appreciation for the world and understanding of its ever-changing existence, which is inevitable.
A Spondee & A Missing Foot
Line one also contains a spondee. The metrical foot contains two stressed syllables, in a successive manner. So, the spondee is “first green,” as both syllables are accented. The intention of the spondee is to illustrate the most important concept in the poem. As the two syllables are stressed, they force the reader to slow down while saying them, which makes the reader hold onto the image, which does not last (neither does gold).
Then, when you come to the last line, you will notice that the line is cut short. In other words, it has a missing foot. Being one unstressed syllable short may be Frost’s way of trying to make the writer get two syllables out of gold rather than the usual one (by making the “o” sound go long when being read).
As gold has such an important meaning in the poem, this argument is very plausible. Gold can symbolize many things in this poem, such as perfection or love.
As a bit of an aside, gold has many mentions in the Bible. A person can be golden, as in Job 23:10, which says “But He knows the way that I take; when He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold.” In other words, after being tried by God, he will come out pure as gold from the intense tests.
In the Bible, gold is often used to symbolize that which endures fire. Gold is also a representation of wealth and power. While the Bible does not come outright and say the gold is evil, it does issue a few warnings, including not to abuse it.
The Denouement of Frost’s Poem
In the denouement or final portion of the poem, the loss is the focal point. There is more and more loss, from Eden to dawn and the end of the gold state. It is in the final line of “Nothing Gold Can Stay” that the main realization comes to the reader: nothing, not one thing, stays gold forever. And so you must cherish the good and prompt the world to keep moving forward.
How is ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’ Similar to ‘Out, Out-‘?
Two of Robert Frost’s poems may be more alike than first thought. Aquileana mused this was the case, and I agreed. If you were already kind enough to follow Poetic Parfait in early 2015, you might have read my interpretation of “Out, Out-” with Aquileana.
In both poems, Frost draws attention to the speed with which life can end. In “Out, Out-” it is the boy’s life that is taken, while the life in “Nothing Gold Can Stay” is humankind or nature, depending how you read the poem.
The changing nature of life and the world around us takes center stage in both of the poet’s works. The gloominess of the ending of life is addressed in both poems, with an ending message that looks to a bigger picture and life lesson for the reader.
You might also see a resemblance to William Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man. In the monologue from As You Like It, “all the world’s a stage” with men and women having entrances and exits.
Concluding Thoughts on ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’
The eight-line poem is deceivingly simple in language, with a complex message underlying its words. It appears as simple as a daisy, pictured to the left, but is the flower really so simple?
The couplings of the poem illustrate changes and the ultimate fading of golden things, which is an inevitable phenomenon.
All that is golden must ultimately end, whether it be dawn, Eden, or the poem itself. The short format of the poem, in which each word lends a purpose, is symbolic of the short life of that which is golden. Through literary devices, such as alliteration and trochees, poet Frost makes clear his message in “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”
Questions for You
Is this poem new to you? Do you agree with the poetry analysis or have anything additional to add to it? Also, which Robert Frost poem is your favorite? I would love to hear from you in the comments below!