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Robert Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” and Emily Dickinson’s poem “Because I could not stop for Death,” abound in symbolism that depicts temporality of life. The time bound existence of all things is expressed through metaphoric symbolism in both the poems.
Dickinson presents this idea of temporality by personifying Death as a guard of worldly life and Frost presents nature in his distinctive style of a synecdochist to demonstrate how time changes everything.
Frost on one hand believes in mortality while Dickinson reestablishes her belief on death and immortality. The poems are similar in their belief that everything in life ends with time, however, Frost does not confirm to Dickinson’s idea of immortality.
This essay compares and contrasts the two poems to demonstrate the similarity in its theme of temporality but difference in stylistic and poetic content. In other words, the aim of the paper is to trace the similarities and differences of symbolism and temporality found in the two poems.
Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay”
First published in 1923, “Nothing Can Stay Gold” is a unique example of a short poem. This poem is just eight lines long and the diction is extremely simple. It is written in trimester lines that add to the poem’s extreme brevity and stylistic lyricism. The poem is usually categorized as a nature poem, and is full of paradoxical symbolisms.
The central theme of the poem is temporality and change. Frost recurrently emphasizes on the fact that things initially may seem vibrant but with time fades into oblivion. Therefore, the question of temporality or transience is central to the theme of this eight-lined poem. A line-by-line explication of the poem reveals that Frost has filled it with paradoxes that symbolize the central theme of the poem.
The very first line of the poem, “Nature’s first green is gold” shows that the paradox of life and death in nature. Green is the first color of spring that assures us of life; however, one may have observed that the very first color that nature bears is not green but a haze of golden yellow. Here Frost does not mean wealth by use of the word “gold,” rather uses it as a color.
Here the reface is again to the very first inception of life in spring when the color of green is not rich viridian but a light golden shade, which appears to be yellow. However, the first golden leaves of spring are awfully short-lived and changes to other shades. In the second couplet, Frost reinforces on another paradoxical observation of nature to demonstrate that the fading away of its initial beauty.
The second couplet describes the “early leafs a flower,” which describes when the leaves bloom out of the stem, curled against each other, shaped like a flower. This demonstrates the leaf’s early life is as beautiful as that of a flower.
However, they grow, as Frost says in, “only so an hour” and are transformed into their flattened shapes. The symbolism of the core idea of the poem is demonstrated with “gold”, “early leaf”, “flower”, “Eden”, and “dawn” . The poem, through its paradoxical imageries, presents the paradox of death in life.
The poem recounts the truth of life i.e. all things eventually ends; it narrates the development and failure, and birth and death in life. The emergence of the eventuality of Fall in the poem is explicitly symbolized with words like “sank” and “goes down”. The transience in life is emphasized and reemphasized in the poem.
The temporality of all things beautiful takes a bigger character when Frost writes about Adam and Eve in paradise and their eventual fall. Thus, he writes, “So Eden sank to grief” . This too symbolizes a transition as was done in case of a golden leaf transforming into a green leaf. Therefore, the paradoxes are juxtaposed against contrasting ideas to demonstrate a different anthology of life.
This emphasizes on the cycle of life, which moves and never stops. The poem ricochets in a sense of the demise, a fall that is abundantly found in nature. The eventual fall is the norm, the rule, the inherent order of nature that is metaphorically expressed in the poem .
Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”
One of the most famous anthologies by Emily Dickinson, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” expresses the same theme of change as observed in Frost’s poem. A summary of the poem recounts that Death dressed as a gentleman suitor takes the narrator for a ride in his horse drawn carriage.
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The narrator appears relaxed with the presence of Death as they pass towns, schools, and other signs of humanity at an extremely relaxed pace. However, the poet intentionally juxtaposes such beautiful sites with the chilly dusk that evolves in the next stanza.
The narrator finds herself completely underdressed for the chill of the evening their journey ends at the burial stand where she was to be buried and in the final stanza, the anti-climax of the poem emerges when we come to know that the narrator has been dead for centuries and this rendezvous with death took place a long time back.
The final line of the poem demonstrates Dickinson’s belief in afterlife and reemphasizes that the horse’s head was a pointer towards an eternal life after death.
The central theme of the poem is change, which is found at its very core, and is symbolically demonstrated through a journey that ends abruptly with the cyclical nature of the movement of time: “We passed the setting sun … He passed us” . The change in the setting of the poem explicitly demonstrates in the alteration of the description from a pleasant ride through the afternoon to the “quivering and chill” symbolizing death.
The finiteness of life is expressed repeatedly in Dickinson’s poem demonstrating the transience and temporality of life. The cyclical nature of life demonstrated through the rising and setting of the sun and journey from a happy afternoon to the chill of the evening transforms the poem from a traditional journey-through- life poem, to a more complicated poem demonstrating the temporality and eventuality of life:
“Since then –‘tis centuries – and yet
Feels shorted than the day
I first surmised the horses heads
Were toward eternity”
The paradox in the poem is the belief that Dickinson asserts, which is inevitability of death, but it is only through death, one can achieve immortality. The poem is more astounding as it gives a mere glimpse into the experience of death rather than providing an exploration of an idea of death.
The poem is rich with symbolism, as one of the main characters of the poem is Death (a personification of death) and Immortality (as another passenger in the carriage). The main theme of the poem is that life is a steady journey towards the eternal eventuality brought by death. This temporality and transience of life is reverberated through the poem.
Theme and Treatment
The summary of the two poems presented at the beginning of the essay shows that the main theme of the two poems are similar i.e. temporality of life. Both Frost and Dickinson strive to present similar ideas of the eventuality of life. The temporal nature of all things beautiful is explicitly presented through both the poems.
In Frost’s poem, every line reflects the sentiment expressed in the final line “Nothing gold can stay”. Frost presents the idea of entropy in his poem, which dictates that all things deteriorate over time and thus moves from order to chaos. Therefore, all living things are destined to fatality and nothing remains eternally.
On the other hand, he presents the idea of cyclical movement of life as we see in nature. Life comes to full blossom in spring and then through the course of the year sheds its colors in autumn. Nevertheless, life returns to full glory in the next spring, repeating the cycle. Therefore, Frost uses the imagery of the natural process, as he describes in his poem, to reveal the real theme of transience and temporality.
Frost’s style in the poem is that of a photographer. He captures every image of nature to its precision – the golden leafs and the leaf flowers at birth. However, he recreates his photographs in paints of eventuality. The poem is a juxtaposition of the idea of life and death presented with the artistic ability of a painter to paint an image.
On the other hand, Dickinson’s poem speaks of immortality discoursed through the same course of transience. Life, as portrayed by Dickinson in “Because I could not wait for death,” presents the same temporality as portrayed by Frost. Human life is mutable and eventually embraces death.
But in the end, Frost looks at life that reoccurs through a perennial cycle of birth and death, while Dickinson moves towards a more permanent end by embracing immortality through death. Both the poets believe in deterioration of everything beautiful and lively, to death, but in the end, they differ in their perspective as one embraces immortality while the other encumbers into the continuous cycle of birth and death.
Symbolism and Paradox
Both the poems abound in rich imagery and symbolism. Frost, however, believes that he is not a symbolist and rather prefers the title of a “Synecdochist” . A synecdoche is a figure of speech that represents a part for a whole and this idea is reverberated in Frost’s poem. He believes that nature represents “the entire system of things that gets represented in every particle” .
Therefore, the symbolism in Frost’s poetry is presented from style to the structure of the poems . The condensed metaphor used in poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” present a brilliant description of the Nature’s true character at inception. Another important line of the poem that presents its theme, other than the last line is “Hardest hue to hold”.
Frost then compares the autumnal fall of the leaves with the fall of humankind in Eden. The episode of Adam and Eve plunged the human race from the life of immortality to one eventually perishes. Frost thus presents the idea of suffering and decay that eventually ends everything that is beautiful.
The poem is a synecdoche. The first five lines of the poem present the birth and fall of the minutest parts of nature. Frost describes the leaves at birth as golden and then compares them to flowers in order to establish the concrete, the symbols of something much bigger which is then entered with a significant “So” in the sixth line that presents the turn of the poem towards a bigger misery and fall – that of the humankind in Eden.
Therefore, Frost employs the imagery of the golden leaf and the flower shaped leaf and their change to symbolize the transient nature of life and the rise and fall of man, which is further exemplified with the episode of Adam and Even in Eden.
Emily Dickinson uses personification as a tool to symbolize the advent of death and immortality. The two themes of the poem, Death and then eventual Immortality achieved through death, are personified. Death is embodied as a courting gentleman while Immortality is personified as a passenger in Death’s carriage: “The carriage held just ourselves … And Immortality” .
The imagery in the poem presents the past to “clarify the infinite conceptions through the establishment of a dialectical relationship between reality and imagination” . Through the symbolism of death and immortality, Dickinson tried to present her philosophy of the interconnectedness and the “mutually determined” system of the finite (human life) and the infinite (immortality achieved through death) .
The presence of immortality after death is symbolized through the narrator who had died a long time ago but lives eternally to tell the story of her meeting with Death and Immortality. The paradox of the poem is apparent when the narrator tries to determine the extent of the immortality after death through temporal concepts such as “century” and “day”.
She states that “centuries” in the immortal life is “shorter than the day”, which is an earthly notion. Further Dickinson’s personification of Death as a gentleman becomes more striking as she described him in the most agreeable manner. However, in the fourth stanza Dickinson amalgamates the finite earthly life with the infinite death:
“The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only gossamer, my gown –
My tippet – only tulle”
These lines represent the temporal existence of the narrator where her mortal qualities are affected by the “chill” of the “Dew”. In a way, the narrator tells the story of her temporal life from a higher position of immortality and literarily a higher awareness of everything.
Symbolically the poem talks of three stages of life – the school that represents childhood, “School, where children strove”; adulthood is represented through “Fields of gazing grain; and old age and eventually death is represented through “setting sun” .
Dickinson visualizes life as a play of childhood, adulthood, old age and death, and eventually immortality. Immortality freezes time. Therefore, the narrator symbolically uses the “horses head” as life, which is a walk towards eternity.
This is the point where Frost and Dickinson differ in their philosophies. Frost sees life as a never-ending cycle of being and fatality while Dickinson romanticizes death as the bearer of immortality that freezes time. The styles of the two poets are different in their treatment of temporality and change.
Frost shows change as a symbol for the transformation in the greater sorrows and miseries of life while Dickinson shows change as an alteration in the life of man towards his ultimate goal of embracing death. Even though, the themes of temporality and change are common in the two poems, Frost and Dickinson have disparate attitude towards life and death.
Bagby, G. F. (1986). Frost’s synecdochism. American Literature, 58(3), 379-392.
Dickinson, E. (2010). Because I Could Not Wait for Death. In E. Dickinson, Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries (pp. 62-63). New York: Harvard University Press.
Frost, R. (2005). Nothing Gold Can Stay. In J. Parini, The Wadsworth Anthology Of Poetry (p. 636). Toronto, Canada: Cengage Learning.
Quinn, M. B. (1966). Symbolic Landscape in Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay”. The English Journal, 55(5), 621-624.
Shawa, M. N. (1991). Dickinson’s Because I could not Stop for Death. The Explicator, 50(1), 20-21.