«A Dissertation by SARAH ELIZABETH HART Submitted to the Office of Graduate Studies of Texas A&M University in partial fulfillment of the requirements ...»
Loss also seems to have conditioned Frost's composition of "Nothing Gold Can Stay," albeit in some more indirect ways than the depressing atmosphere and lack of inspiration that conditioned Hopkins's "Spring and Fall." In Robert Frost: A Life, Jay Parini notes that "Nothing Gold Can Stay" grew out of a fragment composed in 1900, the same year that Frost's mother passed away and the year that Frost's young son Elliott died of cholera before his fourth birthday (Parini 201; Tuten and Zubizarreta xiv). The image of a young child facing death was a reality for Frost whereas for Hopkins the image seems to remain merely poetic—although both poets seem to find the contrast between youthful beginnings and mature endings in death to be resonant and synecdochally indicative of the ends of all loss. Frost returned to the fragment from 1900 after a trying stint at Amherst College from 1916-1919 during the last half of the World War I (Parini 201; Tuten and Zubizarreta xiv). Academic life did not suit Frost: teaching lacked the appeal—and the poetic inspiration—of farming, and Frost was plagued by administrative disputes over his position at Amherst (Parini 191). In addition, Frost fell ill for almost two months during the flu epidemic of 1918, which killed thousands of people in October alone (Parini 190).
Frost finally resigned from Amherst in January 1919, and after finishing the spring semester there, promptly returned to writing poetry, apparently inspired by his move to a farm in South Shaftsbury, Vermont (Parini 191, 194). Frost sent a draft of "Nothing Gold Can Stay," developed from the 1900 fragment, to a friend on March 20, 1920 (Parini 199). Unfortunately, around the same time, Frost's sister's mental illness, which had been getting increasingly worse since her enrollment in college in 1916, took a sharp turn for the worse that spring, and she was permanently institutionalized by April 1920 (Parini 199). Her debilitating illness haunted Frost because it was "too painful to withstand," and he visited only rarely before she died at the State Hospital in Augusta, Maine in 1929; her mental demise reminded Frost of the "traces of insanity" he recognized in other family members and in himself (199-200). For example, Frost's mother had exhibited "incipient insanity," and mental illnesses underlay not only his sister's institutionalization, but also his daughter's institutionalization, his son's suicide, and his own "tendency toward depression" (Parini 9, 199, 376, 332, 444). Although many of these losses and illnesses followed Frost's completion of "Nothing Gold Can Stay," Frost was well-acquainted with the ephemerality of meaningful presences.
As a testament to the brilliance of the precarious, "Nothing Gold Can Stay" was published in 1923 in Frost's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection New Hampshire (Tuten and Zubizarreta xiv) and is now an anthology piece that has found a place in the American poetic memory, as S. E. Hinton's allusions to it in The Outsiders attest.
When Hinton's characters Johnny and Ponyboy hide out in an abandoned church because Johnny killed a Soc who had attacked Ponyboy, the cold weather wakes the boys up early enough to watch a beautiful sunrise, which prompts Ponyboy to recite Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay" (76-77). Hinton includes the entire poem in her novel, and has Ponyboy explain, "Robert Frost wrote it... I always remembered it because I never quite got what it meant" (78). At the end of the novel, after Johnny dies from injuries he incurred while saving children from a fire, Ponyboy finds a letter Johnny left him; Johnny remembers Frost's poem, explaining "that poem, that guy that wrote it, he meant you're gold when you're a kid, like green. When you're a kid everything's new, dawn. It's just when you get used to everything that it's day. Like the way you dig sunsets, Pony. That's gold. Keep that way, it's a good way to be" (Hinton 178). By portraying characters who remember Frost's poem and use it to make sense of their experiences of loss, Hinton introduces Frost's poems to her readers, inviting them to at least remember Frost's poem if not also use it to make sense of their own losses. Francis Ford Coppola's film adaptation of the novel includes Hinton's allusions to Frost, introducing the poem to audiences who may not have read Frost's poem or Hinton's novel; the film also emphasizes Frost's theme by beginning the film with the song "Stay Gold." The enduring cultural presence of "Nothing Gold Can Stay" suggests that loss and absence motivate or construct connections with others, although such connections may always be attenuated by their ties to loss and absence.
Rhetorical Losses and Poetic Dialogues Themes of loss and separation are conveyed in both poems' titles. Hopkins's title connotes the autumnal setting and its relation to spring—a tension that, especially in light of Hopkins's persistent anxiety over "the crisis of spring," invokes relationships between life and death, between becoming and declining, and perhaps even between creativity/vitality and artistic paralysis (Myers 585; White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography 322; Nixon 479). While these oppositions may seem to emphasize their separation or difference from each other, John A. Myers observes that the title "suggests that fall and spring are somehow connected or involved in one another... " which prompts the reader to consider not only how spring and fall are connected, but also how life and death, the processes of becoming and decay, may also be mutually constitutive (585). These pairs are connected through their differences—in a sense, death is the loss of life, declining is the loss of becoming, and fall is the loss of spring-time growth. The title of the poem not only connotes seasons and the poem's autumnal setting, but also symbolizes the age difference between the characters—the young Margaret, whose name means "daisy" and thereby associates her with spring, and the older, more jaded narrator (Myers 585; Wardi 245). Hopkins's title also suggests the fall from grace in the JudeoChristian tradition and Adam and Eve's exile from Eden, which is connoted in Hopkins's term "Goldengrove," as Eynel Wardi, Roger L. Slakey, Gerard A. Pilecki and others observe (Wardi 244). The shift from innocence to experience is another oftenemphasized theme, affirmed by Wardi, Slakey, and Lorraine Wynne.3 These tensions between innocence and experience, life and death, etc. all seem to turn on various kinds of loss—each tension is a variation on the theme of absence vs. presence.
Frost's title, "Nothing Gold Can Stay" emphasizes loss through arguing in the negative that nothing "Gold" or precious/valuable endures; re-stated positively, the title argues that everything valuable passes away, changes, and/or is lost. The title's reference to "Gold" not only anticipates the poem's focus on early spring-time leaves, but also hints at the gold leaves of autumn, subtly connoting the tension between spring and fall
3. Wardi indicates that Margaret's "enabling innocence" allows her to care for Goldengrove's leaves and to "intuitively" feel the true source of her mourning—i.e. the "blight" of mortality (Wardi 237; Hopkins 14). Wardi extends the poem's "manifest context of the 'fall' from childhood innocence to adult experience' by addressing Hopkins's cultural context in order to analyze his "poetics of empathy" (238). Slakey cites critics Sister Robert Louise, Sister Casalandra, and John Nist, who suggest Margaret mourns for sin and "the loss of original innocence," to contextualize his question, "What is the relation between weeping and knowing?" (23, 31). Slakey suggests that Margaret "may learn of the immersion in self" through her experience that the poem describes, but concludes that "she may never weep" for this self-immersion that is the "ultimate" but not immediate "cause of sorrow" (31). In addition, Lorraine Wynne uses the innocence vs. experience dichotomy as a foil for her reading of "Spring and Fall" as emphasizing apprehension, reason, hope, life, and death. Wynne draws on James F. Cotter's theory of personal myth to define Hopkins's mythopoesis as "the personal, poetical myth of acquisition of knowledge of the transcendental, Christocentric world" based on Hopkins's Catholic faith (49, 52, 51). She then applies this mythopoetic code to "Spring and Fall," arguing that without this code, the poem suggests that "youth, innocent of experience of death, grieves through direct observation of loss outside of itself... but cannot name the grief stimulus... although the nature of grief is intuitively grasped" while "the repeated experience acquired with age permits" the mature observer "to know the true nature of human sorrow" (Wynne 58). This emphasis on grief and mortality changes, however, when we read the poem through the mythopoetic code, which invokes a "semantic universe" that is "transcendental" instead of "phenomenal," ultimately transforming signs of "innocence" and "experience" into those of understanding and "identity," and signs of "sorrow" and "decay" into "hope" and "death" in order to emphasize the "ultimate union with" Christ on which Hopkins mythopoesis centers (Wynne 58, 60). Wardi, Slakey, and Wynne all affirm the significance that the poem places on the shift from innocence to experience.
that Hopkins explicitly addresses (Sanders and Vogel 239-240). While Hopkins's names specific seasons that symbolize more universal contrasts, such as youth vs. maturity, Frost's universal term "Nothing" explicitly invokes absence and orients the poem towards the nature of loss in general. Frost ties the nature of loss to Eden and the fall from grace in the poem's body, as Hopkins's does implicitly. Although Hopkins never names Eden explicitly, his term "Goldengrove" has often been interpreted by scholars like Eynel Wardi, Roger L. Slakey, and Gerard A. Pilecki as alluding to Eden (G.
Hopkins, "Spring" 2; Wardi 244). In light of Hopkins's "Goldengrove," the "Gold" in Frost's title seems to anticipate his explicit reference to "Eden" in line six (G. Hopkins, "Spring" 2). Frost's title emphasizes loss in general whereas Hopkins's title connotes the loss that underlies opposites. By framing loss as a kind of common ground connecting a thing and its absence or opposite, Hopkins lends loss a more dialogic, rhetorical tint than Frost does.
Loss and separation certainly underlie many critics' interpretations of Hopkins's poem—Myers's focus on "the fall from innocence" (587), Wynne's definition of "losing" as "the mark of identity" in Hopkins's mythopoesis (55), Wardi's discussion of the poem's metapoetic emphasis on empathy as the poet's aim (247), Gerard A. Pilecki's observation of spiritual modes of knowing (91), and Paul C. Doherty's emphasis on the reader's view of "the full cycle of death and rebirth" represented in Hopkins's poem (143). While Doherty and Wardi treat "Spring and Fall" as a dramatic monologue, none of these critics has emphasized the poem as a piece of rhetoric that persuades readers to view personhood as centered on loss, death, and separation. A rhetorical reading of "Spring and Fall" may show that the rhetorical, dialogic relationship that Hopkins constructs with his readers demonstrates how separations of loss and death can give rise to meaningful connections with others. Through its rhetorical effects on readers, "Spring and Fall" presents a philosophical view of rhetorical personhood—a way of being constituted both by loss and by connections that follow from the exigence of separation.
For example, the poem's subtitle, "To a Young Child," frames the poem as a dialogue, even though some critics, like Myers, conclude that the narrator does not explicitly address Margaret, but rather only muses internally on human life and death, engaging in a reverie prompted by Margaret's grief (586). This dialogic frame, like other themes in the poem, develops as the poem continues, specifically through the speaker's rhetorical questions and direct address to Margaret (G. Hopkins, "Spring" 1-4, 15). The dialogic juxtaposition of Margaret and the narrator may reflect a tension in Hopkins's own fearful attitude toward spring, which, as an adult, he knows will return but nevertheless fears, perhaps childishly, will not. Hopkins might feel internally conflicted by adult knowledge and childish fears. The poem's dialogic frame—which itself turns on separation and difference between Margaret and the narrator—invites us to view thematic tensions in the poem (life vs. death, growth vs. decay, innocence vs.
experience, etc.) as functioning dialogically themselves. Like dialogue, oppositions between life and death, growth and decay, etc. are defined both by separation and connection. Since dialogue is a way of transforming separation between people into a conversational connection, the poem's emphasis on dialogue reiterates the poem's meditation on the problem of separation—how it always conditions connections and its attendant attitudes, including sorrow, mourning, and narcissism.
Separation or the loss of connection with others seems to be the fundamental problem of personhood for Hopkins—which may not be simply a religious issue, but also a rhetorical one insofar as separation serves as the exigence for rhetoric. For Hopkins, separation plagues personhood in a variety of ways that seem to align with rhetoric: Separation plagues personhood through narcissism, through death, through the self's incommunicability, and through other losses of connection with people. Hopkins served as Professor of Rhetoric at Roehampton in 1874, teaching a rhetoric course based in the Greek and Latin traditions during a one-year reprieve from his own studies to become a priest, and his own rhetoric background may have shaped his imagination of "Spring and Fall," whether or not he is consciously or intentionally trying to argue about rhetoric in the poem (White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography 215-216). If we read "Spring and Fall" rhetorically, however, we may uncover some of its ethical implications. These ethical implications arise in part from Hopkins's attention to rhetorical separation as a source of mourning; in turn, mourning seems to reflect, for Hopkins, how personhood is conditioned by separation, including loss and death.
Mourning and other emotions may also be a means of connecting with others and thereby overcoming separation.