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Johnny is encouraging Ponyboy not to waste his youth wishing for a life he doesn't have. Frost's poem "Nothing Gold Can Stay" is the perfect literary reference to reinforce the idea of the fleeting nature of youth and the precious quality of the everyday experiences of life. The first line of the poem, "Nature's first green is gold," sets up a botanical metaphor for childhood: as the earliest blooms and leaves emerge, they have a golden cast to them that can only be seen for the briefest of time before the darker greens of mature flowering take their place. Frost uses other aspects of the natural world to continue the symbolic reference to innocence and its imminent loss right up to the last line, "...so dawn goes down to day, nothing gold can stay." It's a beautiful poem.
"Stay gold," says Johnny as he dies in the end. Looking back on the reference to Frost's poem, recall that it was recited in full earlier in the story, as it had distinct and special meaning to Johnny.
Why? Frost's poem is symbolic in nature, using the changing of seasons and the nature of trees to represent coming of ages in one's life: birth, life, death, etc. Consider especially the last lines -- "So dawn goes down to day, Nothing gold can stay." Here is exactly the reason why Johnny was encouraging PonyBoy to stay gold; by doing so, his best is preserved.
Gold, throughout literature, is used as a metaphor for quality, truth, purity, and wealth. In this case, gold represents the highest attainable standard. Is it any wonder that Johnny uses this poem to motivate PonyBoy? It's all too appropriate.
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