Thursday, April 25, 2013

"Nature's First Green Is Gold"

As I have observed previously in connection with William Wordsworth's "A slumber did my spirit seal," it is sometimes difficult to appreciate well-known poems that we have lived with for years. However, circumstances may give us an opportunity to see them in a new light, often when we least expect it.

My daily walk usually takes me past a long row of tall bigleaf maples.  The trees are old, and the prevailing north wind has given them a southerly lean.  The trunks are wide and gnarled, and a few of the lower branches of each tree graze the ground.

At this time of year the maples are coming into leaf.  Yesterday, I stopped to look at the unfolding leaves, which are yellow-green as they emerge, flower-like, from the buds.  As I looked, the following poem -- one of those old chestnuts that are sometimes difficult to see afresh -- came back to me.

Lucien Pissarro, "April, Epping" (1894)

  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.

Robert Frost, New Hampshire (1923).

"But only so an hour" is right on the money:  in a couple of days, the new maple leaves will have turned a slightly darker shade of green.  "Leaf subsides to leaf" is very nice:  the image of leaves sinking or settling or relaxing (outward and downward) as they open -- and as they, in time, fall -- is a lovely and a redolent one.

Lucien Pissarro, "The Dunmow Road from Tilty Wood" (1915)

Proud Change (not pleased in mortal things
     beneath the Moon to reign)
Pretends, as well of Gods as Men,
     to be the Sovereign.

Edmund Spenser, Epigraph to Canto VI, Mutabilitie (c. 1589) (spelling modernized).

Lucien Pissarro, "The Garden Gate, Epping" (1894)


Bob said...

It's presumptuous to try to emend Frost, but I've always thought "Then leaf subsides to leaf" really should have been "Then flower subsides to leaf."

It's true that would make seven rather than six syllables, but the last line is purposely one short, so it makes for a kind of balance. And the alteration would mark a pivot point between the first four lines and the last four.

But then he's the poet, not me. :-)

Anonymous said...

One of my absolute favorite poems & one of the truest.
We are having "nature's first green" here in NYC too, & finally some perfect April weather.
And on a lower level of verse, "Cherry Pink & Apple Blossom White" is what the parks are now.
Susan in NYC

Stephen Pentz said...

Bob: thank you for visiting again, and for your thoughts.

With regard to your comment: but don't you think that part of the poem's beauty lies in the alliteration of the monosyllables throughout? "Green is gold;" "hardest hue to hold;" "dawn goes down to day." In that sense, "leaf subsides to leaf" perhaps trumps "flower subsides to leaf." But that's just me.

Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: it sounds as though our cherry and apple blossoms may be a bit ahead of yours this year. I hope that you can get out and enjoy them while they last.

Yes, poems like this never seem to leave us, do they? I wonder if Frost's poetry will be the last American poetry to provide some sort of common memory for us.

Thank you for stopping by again.