By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Fire and Ice’ is one of the best-known and most widely anthologised poems by the American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963). The poem has a symbolic, even allegorical quality to it, which makes more sense when it is analysed in its literary and historical context. Frost wrote ‘Fire and Ice’ in 1920, and it was published in Harper’s Magazine in December of that year.
You can read ‘Fire and Ice’ here before proceeding to our analysis of the poem below.
The elements of fire and ice mentioned in the poem, and foregrounded in its title, are two of the four Aristotelian or classical elements, along with earth and air (although ‘ice’ is usually just described as water, Frost – whose very surname here summons the icy conditions of one half of the poem – is purposely summoning these classical elements).
In summary, ‘Fire and Ice’ is a nine-line poem in which Frost tells us that he has heard some people say that the world will end in fire, while others reckon it will end in ice. In other words, the world will either burn up or freeze up. Frost’s speaker goes on to assert that his own view is that fire is more likely, especially in light of his experiences of desire (which is often linked with fire and heat, e.g. we talk of ‘burning with desire’ for someone).
However, ice comes a close second for him: he’s also experienced enough of the destructive power of cold, icy hatred to see how that might consume the world, too, and be sufficient to destroy it.
We said that fire and ice are perhaps more allegorical than symbolic in Frost’s poem, because rather than leaving these deeply symbolic forces of fire and ice open to speculation and different interpretations, he goes on to link them very specifically to two particular emotions: desire for fire, and hate for ice.
In other words, will humans destroy the world through hating each other so much that we all kill each other? Or will passionate desire actually destroy everything?
In other words, what begins in rather elemental, open-ended terms (perhaps even inviting us to think of global warming, something unknown to Frost, when we read of the world ending in fire) comes to have a distinctly human aspect, grounded in human emotions and behaviour.
What makes ‘Fire and Ice’ such a haunting and even troubling poem is its acknowledgment that desire and passion can be more deadly and destructive than mere hate: hate (‘ice’) may well consume us all through war (we need only look at how religious and political differences can make whole groups of people hate their neighbours), but desire (‘fire’) may prove even more powerful because it can provide the zeal, the irrational belief in something, that will fuel even more destructive behaviour.
Frost wrote ‘Fire and Ice’ in 1920. This is just two years after the end of the First World War, and a time when revolution, apocalypse, and social and political chaos were on many people’s minds. And especially on poets’ minds.
A year earlier, W. B. Yeats had written ‘The Second Coming’, with its famous declaration, ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’, and its assertion that a ‘second coming’ must be ‘at hand’, with some sphinx-like creature slowly making its way towards Bethlehem to be born as a second Christ.
Five years after Frost wrote ‘Fire and Ice’, T. S. Eliot would offer his own version of apocalypse in ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925): ‘This is the way the world ends’, he says, famously, ‘Not with a bang but a whimper.’ ‘Fire and Ice’ should be seen in the broader literary context of these ‘apocalyptic’ poems.
‘Fire and Ice’ was supposedly the inspiration for the title of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and lends a curiously apocalyptic meaning to Game of Thrones. Will the world end in fire or ice?
This idea of one world coming to an end and another, potentially, being born, is obviously also an important context for Robert Frost’s poem: the idea of an old world order giving way to a new was ‘in the air’ when he wrote the poem.
About Robert Frost
Robert Frost (1874-1963) is regarded as one of the greatest American poets of the twentieth century. And yet he didn’t belong to any particular movement: unlike his contemporaries William Carlos Williams or Wallace Stevens he was not a modernist, preferring more traditional modes and utilising a more direct and less obscure poetic language. He famously observed of free verse, which was favoured by many modernist poets, that it was ‘like playing tennis with the net down’.
Many of his poems are about the natural world, with woods and trees featuring prominently in some of his most famous and widely anthologised poems (‘The Road Not Taken’, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, ‘Birches’, ‘Tree at My Window’). Elsewhere, he was fond of very short and pithy poetic statements: see ‘Fire and Ice’ and ‘But Outer Space’, for example.
Robert Frost was invited to read a poem at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961. However, as he prepared to read the poem he had written specially for the occasion, ‘For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration’, Frost found he was unable to read the words of his poem on the paper, so bright was the glare of the sun. So instead, he began to recite one of his earlier poems, from memory: ‘The Gift Outright’. Most critics agree that ‘The Gift Outright’ is a superior poem to the inauguration poem Frost had written, and ‘The Gift Outright’ is now more or less synonymous with Kennedy’s inauguration.
It is interesting that Eliot wrote his apocalyptic poem five years after with his own spin. Did Frost influence his version?
That’s a good question. It’s difficult to say what Eliot thought of Frost, and how familiar he was with his work, although it is certainly curious that, in the midst of the next war, in ‘Little Gidding’ (1942), Eliot gives us the line ‘This is the death of water and fire.’