The Ephemeral Nature of Beauty

The most central theme in “Nothing Gold Can Stay” relates to the ephemeral nature of beauty. Indeed, the title alerts us to this theme even before we begin to read, introducing gold as a symbol for beauty. But the title is curiously ambiguous in terms of its point of emphasis. Put differently, it isn’t clear whether the title means that beauty always fades, or else that nothing truly beautiful can be kept or held on to. A careful reading of the poem reveals that both meanings are present. The poem’s opening lines emphasize the first meaning in their description of how spring’s arrival brings new life as buds open into flowers (lines 1–4):

     Nature’s first green is gold,
     Her hardest hue to hold.
     Her early leaf’s a flower;
     But only so an hour.

The speaker explicitly likens the new life of spring to “gold.” Just as gold corrodes with time, the “flower” that grows from the initial bud fades quickly—it only exists for “an hour.” Such an observation recognizes that beauty always fades. However, the speaker also implies a feeling of loss when they describe “Nature’s first green” as the “hardest hue to hold.” The use of the word “hold” here implies the desire for possession, which might enable the speaker to hold on to beauty. But alas, beauty’s ephemerality means that it no one can hold onto it.

The Melancholy Undertone of Change

The speaker’s numerous references to change reveal a pessimistic attitude that implicitly links transformation to loss. In this way, the speaker emphasizes the melancholy undertone of change. This melancholy undertone suffuses the entire poem. In the first sentence, the speaker declares that the initial burst of green in spring is, for “Nature,” the “hardest hue to hold.” Concretely, the speaker is saying that new buds don’t stick around for a long time because they change from green to some other color. But the speaker doesn’t emphasize the change to a new color. Instead, they emphasize how change specifically entails the loss of green. The sense of relinquishment in the phrase “hardest hue to hold” underscores the sad feeling implied by this loss. In the ensuing lines, the speaker’s attitude grows increasingly pessimistic. Consider line 5: “Then leaf subsides to leaf.” Here, the speaker’s saying that leaves fall, and new ones appear in their place. But the speaker’s use of the word “subsides” infuses this natural occurrence with connotations of lapse and decline. The speaker effectively clinches their argument that change is inevitably sad in the following line, where they reference the biblical story of humanity’s permanent exile from the Garden of Eden.

The Cyclicality of the Seasons

As much as it’s a poem about ephemerality and change, “Nothing Gold Can Stay” is also a poem about cyclicality. A close consideration of the opening four lines clearly shows that the speaker is talking about the arrival of spring. Spring is the season of rebirth, and the generation of new life appears to be what motivates the speaker’s speech. They open the poem with a meditation on how the new buds on plants grow into flowers, which then fade and give way to leaves. Then they state that “leaf subsides to leaf” (line 5), a phrase that subtly conjures an autumnal image of falling leaves. In this way, without ever saying either “spring” or “fall,” the speaker alludes to the seasons and the cyclical process by which one feeds into the next. It’s notable, however, that despite their attention to the cyclicality of the seasons, the speaker maintains a pessimistic view that ends with autumn’s movement toward winter. They seem to forget that after autumn and winter comes spring and another round of rebirth. In this way, the speaker’s view of the seasons has a tragic cast that is ultimately more linear than cyclical.