I’m not the only one that analyzes poems on the internet. I came across an analysis by Anna O’Neil at the website Aleteia of this nice little Robert Frost poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”
Nothing Gold Can Stay
By Robert Frost
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.
You could look at this poem from several angles. Wikipedia mentions the analyses from a sound perspective, especially the alliteration within the poem. Notice how the second and seventh lines both are loaded with alliterated words, and so have a mirror effect to the poem. Notice how each of the lines have six syllables except the last, which has five. Notice how each line, short as they are, is a sentence. The sixth and seventh lines are separated by a comma, but they are each self-contained clauses.
You could also look at the poem from its structural design. The poem seems to divide in two. The first four lines form an exposition, and the last four a narrative.
Anna O’Neil focuses on the poem’s meaning, especially as the poem jumps from leaf to Eden to dawn. She has a really good understanding of the line, “So dawn goes down to day.” The poem’s meaning rests on it, and I’m not going to steal her brilliance. You’ll have to go over to read it.
In prose writing those unprepared jumps (leaf to Eden to dawn) would be considered “choppy” writing, and therefore bad prose, but in poetry those leaps are called compression, and provide a charge to the poem, and therefore good poetry.
One thing that isn’t mentioned that I noticed is how much power the word “so” has in the poem. The entire poem is sixty words and “so” turns up three times, twice at the beginning of a line, lines that are sequential: “So Eden sank to grief,/So dawn goes down to day.” Those two lines that begin with so, the only two that have a comma between them and so form a compound sentence are the two lines that compress the narrative and enlarge the poem’s meaning. They are the most important lines of the poem. But also the two so’s there establishes sequential links. “So” is an adverb that means “for this or that reason; hence; therefore.” “Then” in the preceding line acts in the same way. Causal links are established that form the basis of a mythic concept, and indirectly alluding to the causal links from Edenic fall.
But now look at the other line with “so.” “But only so an hour.” At first I thought that was a typo. The natural way to phrase that line would be, “but only for an hour.” I searched around and all the postings of the poem have it, and in a recorded version (which I embed below) of Frost reading the poem himself, he does use so. That is how Frost wrote it. Why “so” as a word choice there? Well, it does echo the word that will come in the important sixth and seventh lines. But “so” here is an adjective, meaning “true as stated or reported; conforming with reality or the fact.” It emphasizes the transient nature of the situation. It’s only true for that moment. It most certainly is the better word choice.
It’s a lovely little poem and like so many of Frost’s poems the simplicity is only on the surface; there is much depth within. Here is Frost himself reading the poem.