Nature poetry

As a poem that meditates on images of plant growth, “Nothing Gold Can Stay” must be situated in the long tradition of poetry devoted to nature. This tradition goes back to the pastoral poetry of Greek and Roman antiquity. Written by poets from urban centers, pastoral poems projected idealized images of the peaceful simplicity of shepherds’ lives in rural nature. Pastoral poetry made a resurgence in the Renaissance and remained popular among neoclassical poets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, however, the British Romantic poets departed from conventionally pastoral depictions of nature. Instead of depending on highly idealized conventions for portraying rural life, the Romantics sought to forge more personalized, individual relationships with the natural world. Each in their different way, Romantic poets like William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Percy Shelley explored their own unique emotional and philosophical responses to nature’s beauty and sublimity. Across the Atlantic, poets like Walt Whitman and philosophers like Ralph Waldo Emerson took a similar approach, reframing the natural world as a wildly beautiful and divine frontier. Curiously, Frost’s poem departs from the overriding optimism of most nature poetry. His vision of change in the natural world is decidedly pessimistic.

American regionalism

In the early twentieth century, numerous American writers who felt frustrated with the willful obscurantism of the avant-garde sought to ground themselves in the particular regions where they lived and worked. These “regionalist” writers typically expressed a preference for the country over the city. This preference stemmed partly from a belief that rural landscapes were spiritually therapeutic, and partly from a desire to honor the value of everyday language and country wisdom. Robert Frost is often considered to be a regional poet, since he set much of his writing in the rural landscapes of New England, where he lived for much of his life. When Frost came of age as a poet in the first decade of the twentieth century, he found it difficult to locate himself in a field increasingly energized by experimentalism. Movements like Imagism, though short-lived, had an outsized impact on modern poetry. Hence, when compared to the experimental poetics of modernists like Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, what’s most immediately evident about Frost’s poetry is its accessibility. His speakers habitually use simple, colloquial language to observe and reflect on the local landscape. In so doing, they also often give voice to universal truths.