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Analysis of Poem "Fire and Ice" by Robert Frost

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Robert Frost

Robert Frost

Robert Frost And A Summary of Fire and Ice

Fire and Ice is a short rhyming poem Frost wrote in 1920, probably inspired by Dante's Inferno, Canto 32 (the first book of his 14th century Divine Comedy) which deals with the subject of sinners in a fiery hell, up to their necks in a lake of ice.

Other sources claim the poem was created following a conversation with astronomer Harlow Shapley about the end of the world. The noted astronomer, when questioned by Frost, said that either the sun will explode or the earth will slowly freeze. Take your pick.

Robert Frost, in his own inimitable way, chose both, the poem expressing this dualism in a typical rhythmic fashion, using a modified version of the rhyming scheme known as terza rima where the second line of the first tercet rhymes fully with the first and third lines of the next. This was invented by none other than Dante in his Divine Comedy, so Frost may have borrowed the idea.

  • In short, both sources sound plausible and resulted in a curious tongue-in-cheek kind of poem, the tone being somewhat casual and understated, whilst the subject matter is one of the most serious you could think of.
  • If you listen to the video carefully, Robert Frost speaks in an almost offhand way as if saying to the reader - you make your mind up which method (of destruction) you prefer. One or the other is going to happen sooner or later.

First published in 1923 in his book New Hampshire, Fire and Ice is a strong symbolic poem, fire becoming the emotion of desire and ice that of hatred. In essence, the fire is pure passion, the ice is pure reason.

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Analysis of Fire and Ice

Fire and Ice is one of Robert Frost's shortest poems but gives the reader much to ponder on. Casual in tone, with clichés, it introduces to the reader the profound idea that the world could end in one of two ways, with fire or ice, through desire or hate.

There is a video of the poem, read by Frost, and it's possible to detect a hint of understatement in his voice. Perhaps a subject of such seriousness needs to be treated with a certain insouciance?

It has that traditional iambic beat running through the mostly tetrameter lines - save for three dimeters - which Frost employed a lot and it's this rhythm that could be said to undermine the essential seriousness of the subject - the end of the world.

Note that the longer lines can be read a little quicker than the short, which means a different tempo for the reader at lines 2, 8 and 9.

From those two alliterative opening lines the reader is drawn into the rhetorical argument - fire or ice for the end of the world? These lines are based on mere hearsay...Some say...who says?...experts...the guy on the street, the woman in the bar?

  • The third line, along with the fourth and sixth reveal the first person speaker, keen to let the reader in on his idea of things. His world view. This is a poem of opinion yes, but opinion brought about by personal experience.
  • Everyone knows the world will end at some time but no one knows how. This poem posits fire or ice, then fire and ice, as the likely causes of the world's demise.
  • And to bring the idea into the human domain, the speaker links the elements to human emotion - fire is desire, ice is hate - and the speaker has experienced them both.

Delving deeper, if Frost took inspiration from Dante's Inferno, then it's necessary to relate these nine lines of the poem to the nine circles of hell mentioned in Dante's book and to also link the Greek philosopher Aristotle's ethical ideas about human nature, which Dante's book reflects.

Aristotle basically said that to live a positive life the passions had to be controlled by reason, and that humans were the only ones capable of rational thought. In contrast to the animals.

So in the poem fire is desire which is passion, ice is hate which is reason. Those who strayed away from the positive life through reason were judged the worst offenders, ending up in a lake of ice.

Either way, the end of the world is brought about by the emotional energy of humans.

Frost's poem neatly expresses this ethical scenario in a nutshell. It's a sort of chilli pepper in a fridge.

More Analysis of Fire and Ice

Fire and Ice is a nine line single stanza rhyming poem with a strong metrical base of iambic tetrameter and dimeter.

Rhyme

The rhyme scheme is : aba abc bcb with ice repeated twice and also contained within twice/suffice. This clever twist on the terza rima rhyme means that the initial opening fire gradually fades as the poem progresses, with ice taking over.

Meter (Metre in British English)

Overall the poem is a mix of iambic tetrameter and iambic dimeter, the long lines having eight syllables and four stresses, the shorter four syllables and two stresses. This gives the poem a rising feel as each word at line end is stressed. That familiar daDUM daDUM steady beat is maintained, one of Frost's most popular.

Let's look closely:

  • Some say / the world / will end / in fire, (spondee+3 iambs)
  • Some say / in ice. (spondee+iamb)
  • From what / I’ve ta / sted of / desire (4 iambs)
  • I hold with those who favor fire.
  • But if it had to perish twice,
  • I think I know enough of hate
  • To say that for destruction ice
  • Is al / so great (2 iambs)
  • And would suffice.

So note the spondees that open the first two lines giving a spurt of energy with a double stress to the alliteration. And line seven scans a little differently as the reader has to naturally pause at the end of destruction, before the word ice continues the meaning into the final two lines via enjambment.

Sources

www.poets.org

The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005

www.poetryfoundation.org

© 2018 Andrew Spacey

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