18 September 2014

So Eden sank to grief

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.
            Robert Frost -- 1923

The singsong brevity of the first four lines is brilliant.  It conveys the swift hour of gold in spring, but brings it near levity as well.  It's all too easy to read the trimeter and rhyme in an exaggerated and mocking way, as if it were bad poetry.

So far the setup.  Now comes the reversal.

Then 'subsides,' with its connotations of failure and falling off, pulls the ground from under our feet.  We weren't expecting that.  And as that leaf subsides, the meaning soars.  'So Eden sank to grief' raises the stakes, from woodland or garden to Garden. 'So dawn goes down to day' spells out a lesser aftermath for all our beginnings, and makes dawn seem more the beginning and ending of something better in itself. These two lines transfigure the poem.  What seemed about mere nature becomes about our nature, about our Fall in the spring of the world.  What's more, it was by Nature that we fell. It was only to be expected.  The gravity of Nature allows gold but a moment.  Then all 'subsides,' 'sinks,' 'goes down.'

Now Frost knew as well as any man that spring will come again for leaf and flower, but what about for us?

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