As the last of the snow melts in my backyard—once again—I am amazed that we were able to bury so many effigies of Punxsutawney Phil during the extra month that his shadow added to an already relentless winter. Although though it is well past March 20, the official first day of the season, and even though we’ve already had our Spring Break, snow flurries are again coming down today in Michigan, just as they did during March Madness, Opening Day, the Masters, and perhaps, even during the NBA Playoffs. Reading poems about Spring this year is more an act of faith rather than a celebration.
If poetry is to be understood, it must be read aloud, meditated upon, delighted in. Short lyrics should be like a favorite pop song in our heads, something we listen to again and again and again. When we lose our ability to hear poetry, we don’t understand it, and reading poetry that we cannot understand is a painful annoyance. Shakespeare describes this phenomenon in Sonnet 8:
Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?
Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy.
Why lov’st thou that which thou receiv’st not gladly,
Or else receiv’st with pleasure thine annoy?
We have to learn to hear a poem’s music and to attune our ears and our minds to it, so that its joy becomes our own. To this end, I want to take a short lyric by Robert Frost and analyze a few of its metrical qualities. Like Ezra Pound, an early champion of Frost’s poetry, Frost was a classicist. His diction makes readers see his poems as simplistic at first, but his mastery of rhythm and repetition are unequalled by his peers. Here is one of those seemingly simplistic and repetitive poems, “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.
The poem consists of eight lines of rhyming couplets written in iambic trimeter. Like so many of Frost’s poems, its argument is fairly straightforward: Spring arrives, its newness lasts for a very short time, and like all things beautiful, it, too will fade—such is the post-lapsarian condition. Indeed, much of Frost’s poetry seems to be set ten minutes after the Fall.
Of course there’s much more we can say about the poem. Lyric poetry is often about eros, or, desire. Most often, the desire is for another, but the desire could be for an object, or even an era. The three states of eros are anticipation, consummation, and lamentation. In a lyric of anticipation, the speaker, or persona, cannot wait to be with his beloved; he lives in the hope of seeing her soon. Consummation lyrics are just that. They tend to be rare because consummation quickly gives way to lamentation—a speaker desires to be with his beloved continuously, for all time, not just for a single time in the past. Lamentation lyrics meditate upon what has been lost. For readers interested in the idea of time and lyric, Sharon Cameron’s Lyric Time and Louise Cowan’s Introduction to The Prospect of Lyric are two excellent starting points. Suffice it to say, there are only two moments of perfection in human history: Eden before the Fall, and the future descent of the Holy Jerusalem. The former is looked back to with lament, and the latter with anticipation. When Dante reaches the Garden of Eden on the peak of Mount Purgatory, he is fulfilling the dream of all lyric poets, a dream Frost shares. Much of Frost’s poetry suggests that certain moments—Spring and its songs, for instance—look back to Eden with the awareness that although the Garden has been lost, a dim memory of it still exists today. Poems attempt to re-present these past memories and make them contemporaneous again, if only for a moment.
On a first reading, Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay” seems to be a lamentation. After all, it narrates the short-lived experience of Spring’s first moments. However, it is a poem focused on consummation, and its speaker is determined not to let the passage of time take Spring’s golden green away from him, even as sun sets on the day. He wants to hold on to this hour, to stretch it out as far as he can, even though he knows Time, the enemy, will win out in the end. If we scan the poem, we see more closely what Frost is doing. As noted earlier, it is written in iambic trimeter, meaning that the poem is accentual-syllabic verse with three beats per line. Poets write in a manner that imitates regular speech, and so a typical iambic trimeter line should sound like dah DUM dah DUM dah DUM. When poets violate this rhythm, they do so always with the intention of communicating a point through the variation in stresses. They call attention to certain words and phrases to aid the reader in interpreting a poem, and these stresses are heard, not read. The four fundamental feet are as follows:
Iamb: dah DUM (regular rhythm)
Trochee: DAH dum (introduces something new, usually the poem’s “turn”)
Spondee: DAH DUM (stresses what is most important; slows down the line)
Pyrrhic: dah dum (often offsets a spondee; speeds up the line)
I’ve scanned the poem here, bolding the stresses in the poem. There are three important elisions (the omission of a syllable when pronouncing a word) noted below.
Nature’s | first green | is gold,
Her hard | est hue | to hold.
Her ear | ly leaf’s | a flower; Elision x 2
But on | ly so | an hour. Elision
Then leaf | subsides | to leaf.
So Ed | en sank | to grief,
So dawn | goes down | to day.
Nothing | gold | can stay.
The spondee in the first line (first green) emphasizes the most important idea of the poem. These two stresses slow down the line, forcing the reader to linger over “first green.” The whole point of the poem is to hold onto the experience of this moment for as long as possible. Subjected to time, the “gold” of “first green” cannot last. The two elisions (the contraction for “leaf is” into “leaf’s,” and truncating “flower” into one syllable) enact the relentless nature of time, which shortens—and ultimately ends—all events and experiences. In eliding “hour,” Frost shows us that even a slow and conscious appreciation of the first green of Spring is a fleeting observation at best, and never an actual prolongation. The last four lines of the poem, which allude to the loss of Eden, emphasize the Garden’s inevitably repetitive loss each Spring. And yet, each year, for one brief hour, we are closer to the experience of Eden than at any other time of the year. This awareness makes for a simultaneous consummation and lamentation—this “experience” of Eden is the closest approximation of Adam and Eve’s experience available in this life.
As time slips away, so does out capacity to conjure up the memory of the past; the second half of the poem is an extended denouement that piles loss on top of loss. The last line is the key to understanding the poem. Scansion reveals a missing foot, and there is no elision. What is a reader to do? Frost intends for us to make two syllables out of “gold,” extending the long “o” so that we enact the very argument of the poem. Stretching out a single syllable beyond its capacity is what we do with the first hour of every Spring. The relief, the joy, the green—it is only natural that we would want that moment to last for as long as possible. Our hearts long for Spring just as our souls long for perfection; our minds look back to Eden or forward to the New Jerusalem.
I often tell my students never to orphan a quotation, but to comment on every quotation always render a reading because quotations cannot interpret themselves. However, an exception is warranted with this stanza from David Middleton’s “The Fiddler of Driskill Hill”:
For that’s what bow and strings are for,
To raise things up in song
Between The Fall and Paradise
And urge the world along.
Sometimes through an education, other times through a reminder, poets always striving to redirect our hearts toward the good and to “urge the world along.”
Books on the topic of this essay may be found at The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.