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Blog

Felix Culpa

Jean Hoefling

apple-on-stump-with-flowersNothing 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

It was the first grown-up poem I burned to memory. I was seventeen, and Mr. Hunt's poetry class was a lifeline in that unhappy season of affected hippie clothes, a tumultuous first romance I still believe probably killed me, and a month of March that gives new meaning to the word bleak.

The passionate Mr. Hunt read poetry aloud to us—all his favorite sonnets by Donne and Shakespeare, and lots of Plath, Hopkins, Dickinson, and many others. O for a muse of fire… Glory to God for dappled things…I died for beauty…That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me… I’d watch our teacher’s mouth form each word and phrase, then place those exquisite nuggets of expression into his students’ hearing as though they were sacraments intended to bless and heal. And somehow, they did. There seems to be a given about most good poetry: it is true. Even if it’s harsh or vulgar, it’s still true. And where there is truth, there is power and mystery and healing. “The truth shall set you free.” Poetry’s aching bluntness gives us something to hang onto as we struggle to grow up over the course of a lifetime.

Maybe that’s why I took Frost’s haunting poem about life’s transience so seriously. I memorized it for life within minutes of my first reading. I lived inside that poem for years while I healed from the sinking Edens of my junior year of high school—the dawns that had too quickly turned to garish midday and the golden things I did not have the maturity to manage before they subsided forever. “Nothing Gold” gave me hope by expressing a sorrowful reality in a gracious and beautiful way.

Many years later, I think of this poem in light of the western theological term, felix culpa: happy fault. In felix culpa is the paradox of Eden’s calamitous fall as a necessary and blessed catharsis for the appearing of the One who, in Christian eschatology, will one day restore lost Eden; who is himself that paradise. Frost’s job as a poet was to point out the heartbreaking fact that in this world, nothing gold can stay. Faith takes it one step further: In the next world, gold will never pass away.