Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “Nothing Gold,” by Ethna McKiernan

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

The title of this poem comes from a short, pithy poem by Robert Frost, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” itself arguably an allusion to another famous poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Spring and Fall,” which begins, “Margaret, are you grieving / over goldengrove unleaving” and ends with “It is the blight man was born for, / It is Margaret you mourn for.” Here is Frost’s poem:

 

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.

 

Brief enough to memorize easily, “Nothing Gold Can Stay” is expansive in its purview, encompassing in just eight lines everything from a single leaf to the passage of time and a life, to the fall of mankind. It’s one of Frost’s most well-known works and is likely to be known to many readers. In today’s poem, the title “Nothing Gold” and its fuller statement in line 19 makes an effective allusion because, being beautiful and wise in and of itself, it offers something even to readers who do not think of Frost’s poem. Readers who do get it receive a bonus, another layer of experience or lens through which to read “Nothing Gold.” Using allusion in a poem can complicate and enrich the experience, somewhat like the painting technique called palimpsest that allows old strokes to show through new layers of paint, or like Shakespeare’s device in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and Hamlet of embedding a play within a play.

There are other allusions to Frost’s poem, too, like another direct quotation in line 24 (“so dawn goes down to day”) as well as less direct mentions of an “August garden.” To help readers get the allusion, McKiernan includes an explanation:

Mind back, he whispers to me
“Nothing gold can stay,” and I recall him
quoting Frost or Yeats at the dinner table

 

This is a reader-friendly way to use allusion, one that makes sure everyone will notice and understand the reference and no one will feel excluded by it. Some might view this explanation as too much hand-holding, but I personally dislike poems with esoteric references that make readers feel poorly-read or require a Google expedition to figure out what is happening. Here, McKiernan’s approach fits in with the general accessibility of this free verse poem rendered in simple vernacular diction.

“Nothing Gold” opens with a frank statement of the situation that seems to have occasioned its writing: the speaker having to watch father’s once-lively and literary mind devolving into dementia as he succumbs to old age. In a line that uses internal slant rhyme, she tells us up front that “Everything my father’s loved is leaving,” then shows what those things are: the homely pleasures of a “whipped cream dessert,” the “bloom” of a late-summer flower, the words to poems he’s loved, and the “Irish tune my mother used to hum.” This list tells us much about the man: he is Irish, he had a wife, he loved simple things. What makes the loss of memory more poignant is that the speaker’s father used to live by and through those lost poems, so much so that they “lived in the house / in all the rooms.” In this way, we know that for him, especially, the loss of words is a terrible blow. To this burden is added the other sticks that make up the heavy bundle of aging, the inability to remember the names of his children, and the paranoia that, Lear-like, makes him imagine his other daughters are imprisoning and plotting to poison him. These are the stories the speaker has heard many times before, and in the poem, is now “desperate not to hear” again.

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  • Wendy Brown-Baez July 11, 2019 at 10:39 am

    This is so poignant to me since my dad also exhibited a change in personality, although not dementia, just exacerbated anxiety and depression leading to paranoia and negativity. Thanks for articulating the loss so well.

    Reply
  • Gregory Ruud June 19, 2017 at 11:11 pm

    So fine a piece!

    Reply
  • Brendan Galvin June 19, 2017 at 5:45 pm

    I met your father in Sligo once, in 1988 I believe. Your poem is a great tribute to him.

    Reply
    • Ethna McKiernan June 26, 2017 at 10:42 pm

      Brenden, he gave me one of your books!

      Reply
  • Carol Masters June 19, 2017 at 11:18 am

    Wonderful poem, poet!

    Reply
  • Trew Bennett June 18, 2017 at 4:20 pm

    Ethna’s poem is perfect for today. Thank you for this delicious site.

    Reply
  • Mike Finley June 18, 2017 at 12:18 pm

    Beautyful

    Reply
  • Ted King June 18, 2017 at 10:48 am

    Beautiful Poem !!!!!!!

    Reply