John A. Rea: On "Nothing Gold Can Stay"

. . . the eight lines of "Nothing Gold Can Stay" are heavily end-stopped. The undesirable result is that the poem will fall apart into eight fragments unless they can somehow be made to cohere both formally and thematically. One major function of the linguistic structures is thus to help organize the poem formally, and, in fact, to organize it in a number of ways simultaneously; this is a second reason for a close examination of its formal structure. Couplet rhyme helps to counteract slightly the end-stopped lines and contributes to the "epigrammatic" quality noted by Thompson, but with no further structure the poem then consists of four disconnected chunks rather than eight—not too much real gain.

Starting with consonantism, the most striking feature is the alliterative symmetry, based on the stressed syllables, which has been extracted below beside the final version of the poem.

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.

Notice first that only lines two and seven have all three stressed syllables in perfect alliteration within the line: Hardest-Hue-Hold, and Dawn-Down-Day. The symmetrical placement of these two lines helps bind the poem into a whole, as does the palindromic consonantism in lines four and five: Only-So-Hour, and Leaf-Subsides-Leaf (where we recall that any initial vowel [symbolized in the chart by O] will alliterate with any other initial stressed vowel).

N G G H H H: O L F O S O L S L O S G D D D N G S

The arrangement down the center of the S-initial words is striking, as is the triangular placement of the L-initial ones. Only the first and last lines seem not to cohere alliteratively with the other lines, but this very lack of coherence, coupled with the lines' initial N and medial G, tends to unite them with each other (as does the recurrent word Gold, which appears only in these first and last lines and is, along with Leaf, the only recurrent stress-bearing word). Indeed, it is alliteration more than any other formal element that cements together Frost's eight end-stopped lines. The coherence of lines one and eight is further reinforced in that they are the only ones bearing initial stress (and so also the only lines not consisting of three perfect iambs), line one having an inverted first foot and line eight a truncated one. Willige claims that if there are "irregularities" of rhythm in a Frost poem, "they are likely to appear in the first line as if the poet had not yet caught its pace." This view of irregularity as a flaw is inadequate to capture its use here, as is clear from the climactic recurrence of the imperfect iamb in line eight. Alliteration also helps to associate thematically the key words Green and Gold, not only with each other but both also with Grief, just as the rhyme scheme links Leaf and Grief.

Although less immediately apparent, the stressed vowel nuclei also contribute strongly to the structure of the poem. The back round diphthongs (underlying round vowels in the abstract vowel structure of Chomsky and Halle) at the ends of lines one through four bind those lines into a unit, as do the front rising diphthongs ( underlying front vowels) at the ends of the second four lines. Philip Gerber suggests that at times Frost "concocts a pseudo-quatrain out of a pair of couplets," but he doesn't define the term "pseudo-couplet." The basic bipartite division of the poem created by these contrastive diphthong types is enhanced by other formal devices to be mentioned below. Notice that the middle stress in lines one and three is on fronting diphthongs while that in two and four is on rounded ones, for an alternating A-B-A-B effect, whereas in the second half of the poem, the first two lines have fronting diphthongs in the center and the last two have rounding ones, in an A-A-B-B arrangement.

The three rounded diphthongs in the fourth line make a striking contrast with the three front ones of line five and establish a clear border between the two halves. Indeed, the ow-ow-aw of line four recapitulates the final vowel nuclei of lines one through three. The first and the last stress of the poem are both on the nucleus ej. It may be significant that the last couplet of the poem is the only one where the lines do not end in a consonant, so that the open syllable yields an open ended finale, or trailing-off effect.

Turning now to the syntactic, and briefly thereafter to the semantic structure, one sees that in the first quatrain the first three lines all begin with Possessive + Adjective + Noun, with the fourth line contrastively different in its structure. This A-A-A-B pattern is matched also in the second quatrain where the first three lines all have the structure Adverb + Noun + Verb + Preposition + Noun, again with a contrasting fourth line. This pattern thereby not only unifies internally the first and the second four lines, but its repetitiveness also binds the two quatrains together, as did the alliterative devices discussed earlier.

Reinforcing the rhyme, the superlative ending -st joins line one with line two while the similarly placed adverbial ending -ly ties three and four (as do the indefinite noun phrases at the ends of those lines). But line one is like three with its copula while two and four (with deleted copulas) are the only lines lacking finite verbs, for an A-B-A-B pattern exactly matching that of the stressed vowel nuclei at the middle stress of those same lines. In the first quatrain the Her of lines two and three sets them against one and four, as in an "envelope quatrain," just as is the case with the initial So of lines six and seven in the second quatrain. In the first half of the poem, each couplet constitutes a complete clause (matching the rhyme structure and diminishing the end-stopped effect), but the second half contrasts with the first in that each line is a complete clause. Frost's reading supports this structure with his slight pitch rises ( indicating non-finality) at the ends of lines one and three, compared with terminal falling pitch at the ends of all other lines; that is, there is double bar juncture in one and three versus double cross in the rest of the Smith-Trager symbolization. Notice that only the odd-numbered lines of the poem have verbs marked with the third singular ending -s (although all words in rhyme are inflectionally bare).

Lines one and three of the first quatrain, containing the nearly synonymous first and early, are each affirmations eroded by the following lines. These same lines contain copulas that link contrastive terms (green with gold, leaf with flower), and in each instance a "pay-off" in the subsequent line concludes the necessary transience of these contradictory equivalences. But in the second quatrain three synonymous verbs of motion (subside, sink, go down) bind lines five, six, and seven together against the last line with its quasi-copula stay. And the "pay-off" of these "transient" verbs is the absolute of the final line, so reminiscent of the conclusion to a deductive argument in logic and containing the poem's only overt negative: Nothing.

From "Language and Form in 'Nothing Gold Can Stay.'" Robert Frost: Studies of the Poetry. Ed. Kathryn Gibbs Harris. G.K. Hall & Co, 1979. Copyright © 1979 by Katheryn Gibbs Harris.


Criticism Overview
Title John A. Rea: On "Nothing Gold Can Stay" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author John A. Rea Criticism Target Robert Frost
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 08 Feb 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Robert Frost: Studies of the Poetry
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