I drove from Montpelier to Middlebury yesterday, through Waitsfield, over the Appalachian Gap, along Route 17 to Bristol, New Haven Mills, and Middlebury. And oh my, the beauty of spring in Vermont was all around—rushing streams, early dandelions, solitary shad trees with their understated pinkish white blossoms, and most of all, early budding trees.
Robert Frost’s little poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” came to mind. It’s said that if you know a poem by heart, you have a companion for life, one who comes spontaneously to mind when circumstances are right. That was certainly true for me yesterday. Here’s Frost’s eight-line 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.
Frost says that “Nature’s first green is gold” because the earliest colors of spring are more golden or yellowish than really green. But only briefly.
As he says, “Her early leaf’s a flower” because many trees actually blossom first, and then bud. We don’t see the blossoms because they’re so small. Moreover, young leaves themselves sometimes look like flowers before they unfold.
The beautiful first days of spring are soon overtaken by full-grown leaves. Frost concludes by comparing the passing of early spring to the Fall of man in the Garden of Eden, and the spectacular beauty of dawn being succeeded by more mundane daylight. “Dawn goes down to day”: One doesn’t usually think that as the sun comes up the dawn is going down to day.
The poem is memorable in part because of its sound. The short lines make the rhymes prominent, but there are also lots of repeating letters within each line. In the first line we have “green is gold.” In the second line there are four H’s: “Her hardest hue to hold.” And the next line: “Her early leaf’s a flower.” That’s a neat word choice: “Her early…” Then comes the LF/FL sound of “early leaf’s a flower.” “Her early leaf’s a flower.”
Then hear the long O sounds: “But only so an hour.”
And the same word repeats: “Then leaf subsides to leaf.”
Then three Ds in a row: “So dawn goes down to day.” Isn’t that nice—dawn, down, day!
“Nothing gold can stay.”
Frost’s poem might be said to be pessimistic: perfect things can’t stay perfect. But as with many of his poems, he succeeds in having it both ways—the beauty and joy as well as that sad sense of transience.
“Nothing Gold Can Stay” is quoted courtesy of Henry Holt and Company, Publishers.
This article first aired as a commentary on Vermont Public Radio.