Katherine Bailey on Books
Book Reviews, Literary Essays


Essays on Poetry Robert Frost by Katherine Bailey
Nothing Gold Can Stay

In a fog of megalomania, Robert Frost undertook a grueling trek to Russia to negotiate with Soviet Premier Nikita S. Krushchev. It was autumn 1962, and the 88-year old poet, suffering from deafness and a painful prostrate condition, still craved the limelight. Also, the white-maned Frost wanted to make a conciliatory gesture after “blowing” his performance at John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s inauguration. At that momentous event, attempting to read the poem he had written for the occasion, Frost was blinded by the sun as he stood on the cold platform. With the eyes of sixty-million people on him and the wind making his own eyes water, he was unable to read the text in front of him. The noon sunlight’s glare bleached the page. When Vice-President Lyndon Johnson held out his hat to offer shade, it merely made the words more indecipherable. It was a fiasco!

Despite this embarrassing interval for the elderly poet, Frost’s crowning public appearance was, indeed, his recitation of “The Gift Outright” at the Kennedy inauguration in January, 1960. By the time he died three years later, he had achieved iconic status with the American public. One needn’t be well educated to appreciate his mastery of simple speech and his moving portrayals of nature. Though the negotiations with Krushchev had failed (While Frost and Krushchev were agreeing about the need to be magnanimous, Krushchev was secretly sending missiles to Cuba.) and literary critics and certain avant-garde readers dismissed him, his collected poems exceeded record sales. For decades he traveled the national poetry-reading circuit, delighting audiences with his engaging presentations. A warm, subtle wit combined with intelligent, wide-ranging conversation characterized each appearance.

A great deal has been written about Robert Frost the man verses Robert Frost the poet. His decades-long marriage was unhappy. Frost admitted that perhaps he had wooed a reluctant woman with too much force. Two of his children died in infancy, one died in giving birth, one became insane, and one committed suicide. During the last twenty-five years of his life he was in love with his secretary – a complex woman – who inspired his best love poems.

During periods of sorrow, Frost sought wisdom and consolation in poetry. It was poetry that allowed him to endure – to shape artistic order out of the chaos of his experience. Believing that a poet needed hardship in order to flourish, he once noted, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” Increasingly, Frost’s dark side began to show up in his work reflecting themes of alienation, loneliness and metaphysical desolation. Still, he endowed the poetic characters in his long poems with an inner strength that allowed them, even in suffering, to take an affirmative stance towards life.

Along with T.S. Eliot, Frost believed that each poet belonged to a tradition that provided a warehouse of images and ideas. And like Eliot, he read poets, both modern and ancient and drew on their works. He adopted principles from William Wordsworth concerning diction, characters, places and social conditions appropriate to poetry. His works echo those of Wordsworth in featuring characters in “low and rustic” life, persons who speak a plain and emphatic language, express elemental and universal feelings, and candidly reveal the passions in their hearts. If Frost had reservations about formal education (He was a teacher during most years of his life.), thinking that it actually created barriers to authentic learning by simplifying complex issues, he was a strong advocate of reading. He wrote: “Poetry begins in the reading of books. The poet writes out of the eddy in his mind of all the books he has ever read…the whole thing is performance, prowess, and feats of association.”

While advocating for the free play of wit and elements of freshness and surprise in poetry, Frost believed that a poem must be written according to a set form. Critics agree that he was one of the ablest verse technicians in American poetry. He once famously said that he would “as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down.” More than many poets, Frost concerned himself with the sound of his poetry and attempted to make each of his poems sound different from the others. For him sound was “the gold in the ore of poetry.”

When he wasn’t teaching to keep his family in cash, he was farming, an activity that filled him with inspiration for his writing. He believed strongly in the ancient analogy between a famer’s craft and a poet’s art. He remarked that mowing with a scythe, chopping with an ax, and writing with a pen were his three favorite acts of labor.

“Nothing Gold Can Stay,” the title of one of Frost’s short works aptly applies to Frost’s death. Though he lived longer than most, his writing – indeed, his very presence – would enhance life in the U.S. I have chosen to feature this poem from 1915 not because it is his best, but because it resonates with me in some inexplicable way. In truth, it is the conviction of a set of critics that the best poem from this period is “After Apple-Picking.”
Nothing Gold Can Stay

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.

This brilliant and intricate short poem considers the perennial theme of mutability. Nothing stays the same. Frost is alluding to lines in an Edwin Arlington Robinson poem titled “The Sheaves.” “A thousand golden sheaves were lying there, Shining and still, but not for long to stay.”

The opening line informs us that nature’s first growth is golden or precious because it lasts such a short time. The poem goes on to tell us that nature cannot hold its color and fades as soon as the leaves fall. Interestingly, Frost chooses the word “her” to refer to nature. The word “flower” connotes beauty, and “only for an hour” is an example of Frost’s use of hyperbole. “Leaf subsides to leaf” connotes that day follows day, in other words, that time goes on. The fall of the leaves is related to the fall of man when “Eden sank to grief.” Dawn inevitably “goes down” to day. There is the marvel of nature and there is the quotidian. The last line – the poem’s title – expresses a negative thought.

The plainness of the theme – that of transitory happiness – is skillfully reinforced with the brevity of each line. Magically, the poem’s couplet- rhyming form creates an upbeat feeling that counters the melancholy prompted by the theme of transformation. “Nothing Gold Can Stay” is a moving expression of the idea of change – the irrevocable effect of time on man and nature.

This poem, along with the others, demonstrates Frost’s love for the play of the imagination. He patently took joy in his creations and believed, as he said, that “poetry spoils you for anything else in life.”

In the introduction to a volume of Frost’s poetry, Editor Louis Untermeyer underscores the poet’s achievement: “In its issue of October 9, 1950, Time magazine gave its coveted cover prominence to a portrait of Robert Frost, reprinted seven of his poems in pages usually crowded with controversial analyses of world affairs, and, instead of a coldly critical review, featured a lengthy and laudatory tribute to the man and his work. Time concluded unreservedly that of living U.S. poets, none has lodged poems more surely where they will be hard to get rid of.”