George F. Bagby: On "Nothing Gold Can Stay"

The basic structure here, though extraordinarily compressed, is typically synecdochic. In the first five lines Frost describes the concrete vehicle: the delicate, yellow, flowerlike beginning of a bud, followed by its "subsiding" from that brilliant, unlimited potential to the comparative green dullness, and the inevitable limitations, of the actual leaf. These lines begin the poem with some of the "delight" which comes from a Thoreauvian familiarity with the minutiae of natural process; but—were we dealing with anyone except an American nature writer—they would scarcely prepare us for the next line. Suddenly, in a startling expansion from physical part to more than physical whole—the synecdochic analogy made explicit in the "So"—Frost moves from a detail of vegetable growth to the history of human failure and suffering. We need to remind ourselves how remarkable it is to see so slight a vehicle expanded into such a weighty tenor. And yet such an expansion is, as we have just seen, not without precedent in American nature writing: Thoreau provides a clear structural and epistemological model when he reads, in the story of the "beautiful bug" in the apple-wood table, proof of the immortality of the soul. And Emerson, in a statement that serves very well to gloss "Nothing Gold Can Stay," speaks of "the catholic character which makes every leaf an exponent of the world" (Collected Works 1:125). In short, the seemingly incongruous terms of Frost's analogy have their own kind of logic; the trope reflects Frost's characteristic way of perceiving reality, an angle of vision which is rooted in a tradition of American nature writing.

The seventh line of the poem avoids anticlimax for two reasons: because it adroitly contracts the scope of the analogy from cosmogony back to the realm of Thoreauvian natural fact (a fact which, like that in the first five lines, is also implicitly synecdochic); and because the implied idea is surprising. Here, as in "Spring Pools" and "The Oven Bird," Frost suggests an almost Blakean view of natural process or experience: that it traces an essentially and consistently downward curve from its beginning. Finally, in the closing line, Frost recapitulates his postlapsarian point: "Nothing gold can stay." Again, as he does with "heaven" in "Fragmentary Blue," Frost has used a key word synecdochically. In the first line, "gold" signifies chiefly a color; by the last line, it connotes not merely yellowness but wealth or perfection in numerous senses.

The expansive potential of a poem like "Nothing Gold Can Stay"—of the synecdochic method itself—helps to explain why Frost, unlike many of his modern contemporaries, is essentially content to write a large number of short lyrics, rather than aspire to the great long poem of which Paterson is an exemplum. One might hypothesize a priori that Frost's production of numerous short poems suggests an atomistic view of reality. But Frost does not, in fact, accept such a view; even as brief a lyric as "Nothing Gold Can Stay" projects a fairly comprehensive vision of experience.

From Frost and the Book of Nature. Copyright © 1993 by the University of Tennessee Press.

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Criticism Overview
Title George F. Bagby: On "Nothing Gold Can Stay" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author George F. Bagby Criticism Target Robert Frost
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 08 Feb 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Frost and the Book of Nature
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