Fire and Ice
Fire and Ice
Robert Frost 1923
Published in Robert Frost’s 1923 collection, New Hampshire, “Fire and Ice” is straightforward in its message that emotions become destructive when they are too extreme—destructive enough, even, to end the world. One of the few Frost poems that does not have a pastoral setting, “Fire and Ice” is composed almost entirely of aphorisms, or short statements that convey wisdom. Rather than telling a story or receiving an insight, the speaker simply expresses an opinion. An accurate interpretation of this poem relies on a conventional association of passion with heat and hatred with cold. Yet, despite the fact that we commonly describe heat as the opposite of cold, passion is not necessarily the opposite of hatred; the two emotions may often be linked, as they are in this poem. As the speaker indicates by the end of the poem, both emotions and conditions are potentially violent and sufficient to destroy the world.
Robert Frost was born in 1874 and lived in New England for practically his entire life. He was co-valedictorian of his high-school class along with Elinor White, whom he married three years later (their marriage lasting until her death fifty-three years later). Frost attended Dartmouth College in 1892, but dropped out after two months; he also attended Harvard between 1897 and 1899, but he never graduated from there, either. From 1900 to
1912, he lived on a farm on Derry, New Hampshire, that his grandfather had brought for him, raising chickens and sometimes teaching at the local secondary school. In 1912, at the age of thirty-eight, he committed one of legendary acts in the annals of American poetry: he sold the farm and moved with his wife and four children to Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, near London, in order to pursue a literary career. The move turned out to be a wise one. In England he made the acquaintances of a number of writers, including Edward Thomas, Lascelles Abercrombie, and Ezra Pound. He also presented the poems he had written in New Hampshire to David Nutt and Company in London; the company agreed to print them, and in 1913 A Boy’s Will was published to favorable reviews. North of Boston, his second volume, was published in England in 1914 and in the United States in 1915. It was this book that established Frost as a New England poet and introduced him to American audiences.
When World War I broke out in England, Frost and his family returned to the United States, where he was received by publishers and magazine editors who had previously rejected his work. He was invited to speak to literary clubs and was introduced to influential poets and critics. The publication of Mountain Interval in 1916 and New Hampshire in 1923 helped to solidify Frost’s reputation as one of the most original and important poets of his era. New Hampshire won the Pulitzer Prize, as did Collected Poems (1930) and A Witness Tree (1943). Frost received numerous other awards during his long and productive career. Among the most notable were the Congressional Gold Medal and a mountain in Ripton, Vermont, that was named “Robert Frost Mountain” by a state legislative act. He read a famous poem at the inaugural of President John F. Kennedy in 1961, and Kennedy later sent him on a goodwill mission to meet with Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union, at a time when diplomatic relations between the two countries were at their worst. Frost was eighty-seven at the time of the trip. Soon after returning from Russia, Frost was operated on for prostrate problems. He died in January of 1963.
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
In these opening lines, Frost introduces an apparent contradiction between fire and ice, a contradiction that will be resolved by the end of the poem. Because these comments are attributed only to an anonymous “some,” the syntax has a universalizing effect. Any particular individual’s opinion is irrelevant. The choice between fire and ice is presented as if it is the only available choice; the possibility that the world will not end or that it will end some other way is never considered.
Here, the speaker is introduced in the first person. He confesses that he’s known unbridled desire; he understands that his desire is strong enough to be converted into fire, and that this fire would be violent enough to destroy the world. The brief alliteration present in “favor fire” contributes to the rhythm of these lines.
- Robert Frost: Poems, Life, Legacy, a compact disc in three sections released in 1997 by Hybrid/Henry Holt, is an enormously valuable resource that includes the complete poems (Frost reads 70); 100 letters; 40 minutes of interview and lectures; more than 60 minutes of video, photographs, and manuscripts; 29 reviews; 13 articles; and a biography.
- A videocassette titled Robert Frost combines biography with recitations of Frost’s poems. It was released in 1988 by the Annenberg/CPB Project, New York Center for Visual History.
- A 1990 audiocassette titled Robert Frost: Fire and Ice contains a one-man performance featuring Frost’s life and poetry, including “Fire and Ice.” It is available from Audio Partners of Auburn, California.
- The First Poetry Quartet performs Frost’s poetry against a backdrop of New England scenery in Robert Frost: New England in Autumn, a 1997 videocassette from The Master Poet’s Collection.
In these concluding lines, the choice swings from fire to ice—but not as an equal option, only if the world “had to perish twice.” Fire would, apparently, still be the first choice. And as the speaker continues to explore “cold” emotions, he understates his knowledge by claiming only to “think” he knows enough. By implication, he declares hate to be a cold emotion, since hatred is linked to destructive ice. Because hatred and desire or passion are not necessarily distinct emotions (one can hate passionately), readers begin to understand that the choice is not actually either fire or ice, but perhaps both fire and ice, as the title states. The tone here and throughout the poem is very understated; saying that ice “would suffice,” or be sufficient, is a rather casual way to refer to the destruction of the world. But notice that the mood is subjunctive rather than declarative. To say that ice “would suffice” is different from stating that ice will suffice in that it implies that such an event will not actually come to pass.
Desire and Hate
In “Fire and Ice,” Robert Frost creates a speaker whose conjectures about the world’s ultimate destruction are designed to reveal the deadly potential of human passion. In order to illustrate his theme, Frost cleverly manipulates the imagery of the title, fire and ice. Note that while the central metaphor is expressed in the title itself, Frost does not fully expand his comparisons. Instead, he requires the reader to think first about the destructive powers of fire and ice, and then to relate this to desire and hate in order to understand the poem’s warning about the equally ruinous potential of unbridled emotion. Clearly the subject of this poem is not the geological destruction of the planet earth; the speaker is not trying to decide exactly how the world will end. Instead, the poem describes a personal apocalypse. As the reader thinks carefully about fire and ice, desire and hate, the poem’s theme becomes richer, yet less tangible. Reflecting on the power of nature allows the reader to consider more deeply the potentially devastating capability of the human psyche to destroy itself.
Although these metaphors are not new or unique, Frost provides a somewhat unusual perspective by the extent of the destruction he envisions. Fire has been used frequently in song and poetry to illustrate the intensity of love and passion. Frost’s speaker, however, is not describing the cozy warmth of a fireplace on a winter’s evening. He is not even issuing a mild warning about getting singed or burned by the fire, the passion. His is a powerful and annihilating conflagration that devours everything it touches.
Because his images are usually familiar and easily understandable, Frost is sometimes thought, by the casual reader, to be a simple poet. This is rarely true. Most of his poems have deceiving depth, employing multiple levels of complexity. They require that the reader move beyond the superficial. This is one of the basic tenets of his poetic style. In an article on “Frost’s Enigmatical Reserve,” Robert Pack describes Frost’s belief that a poem should appear simple to the reader at first; however, upon further reflection, it should present different facets so that the meaning becomes more complex and more elusive.
In “Fire and Ice,” Frost intends the reader, upon reflection, to realize that neither fire nor desire is intrinsically negative. Both are necessary to life, in fact. It is only when the fire is uncontrolled that it grows and consumes all that is around it. This is also true of desire. Frost’s metaphor, then, includes an incompletely stated, but implicit equation: unbridled passion has the force of devastating flame. The speaker then extends the equation to ice, which also is capable of creating an apocalypse by turning once-fertile land into a desolate and frozen landscape. The reader must draw on his or her knowledge and experience to equate that power with hate, which, like ice, can smother all that is around it, leaving an emotionally barren world. Because this is implied rather than directly stated, the reader must use knowledge of hate, of ice, of fire, and of desire to experience the multiple facets of the poem.
Nature and Its Meaning
The symbolic use of nature was a technique that Frost applied throughout his career to reveal insights into both society and the human soul through such ordinary images as a patch of snow or a stone wall. A simple glance through a volume of The Collected Poems of Robert Frost clearly demonstrates that nature is one of Frost’s major motifs, as the world around him provides the subject, theme, symbols, and motivation for many of his best works. From poems such as “The Pasture,” “Storm Fear,” and “Mowing” in his first work, A Boy’s Will, to “Pod of the Milkweed” and “The Draft Horse” from In the Clearing, his last volume, Frost draws on nature for his inspiration.
Although Frost’s nature imagery is often quite complex, in the epigrammatic “Fire and Ice,” he engages the reader with his ironic use of nature in the metaphor, rather than with attention to descriptive detail. In a speech given at Amherst, he stated that “education by poetry is education by metaphor.” Like most of Frost’s poetry, “Fire and Ice” presents an initially clear metaphor; on closer examination, however, the nature imagery encourages the reader to probe for meaning underneath the surface.
The use of opposites is both a theme and a technique that Frost utilized in many of his poems. “In Fire and Ice,” the idea of contrast creates a
Topics for Further Study
- Fire plays a central role in many ancient religions. Choose a fire god or fire-related ceremony from the mythology of any people or country and write a report explaining its importance to that society.
- Create a metaphor that connects a human emotion with some aspect of nature and develop it in a poem or essay.
- Write a report explaining what happened to the earth during the period known as the Ice Age.
- Frost bases his metaphor on the apocalypse. Throughout history, many people have predicted the world’s destruction. One of the most famous and interesting is Nostradamus. Discuss his prophecies.
complementary relationship between organization and theme. Line 1 introduces fire, and line 2 its opposite, ice. Lines 3 and 4 describe the power of fire and its metaphoric companion, desire. Line 5 is transitional, followed by three lines that equate hate and ice. Finally, the last line brings the two opposites together again, since either “would suffice” because of their equally destructive intensity. This structure mirrors one of the poem’s themes. While the forces initially seem to be opposite, both lead to the same set of consequences. Either of these two polar extremes may be lethal.
This tendency to explore opposing views is deeply rooted in Frost’s philosophy. He once described himself as a believer in the dual nature of the world, contrasting his perceptions with those of the great transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Although he admired Emerson, Frost did not totally agree with the beneficent view of the universe that was expressed by most transcendentalists. He believed that Emerson was unwilling to acknowledge the existence of evil. While Emerson described the universe as round, upholding the transcendental viewpoint in the oneness, the wholeness of all nature, Frost felt that, in reality, nature could more accurately be portrayed as an oval. In a circle, there was only one center, which Emerson believed was the Good. Frost, on the other hand, maintained that the oval had two poles, good and evil. In the epigrammatic “Fire and Ice,” Frost describes two aspects of the evil.
“Fire and Ice” is written primarily in rhymed iambic tetrameter, although three of the nine lines are in iambic dimeter. “Iambic” means that each metrical foot consists of two syllables, with the first syllable being unstressed and the second one stressed. “Tetrameter” alludes to the fact that each line contains four metrical feet, while “dimeter” means that each line contains two metrical feet. A line of iambic tetrameter, then, would contain a total of eight syllables, while a line of iambic dimeter would contain a total of four syllables. This rhythm will become more clear if we scan a line:
To say that for destruction ice
When the scansion is diagrammed, the line looks like this:
To say / that for / destruc / tion ice
The use of such rhythmic patterns sometimes makes the poetry more musical and memorable.
The rhyme scheme in “Fire and Ice” is easy to recognize, because all of the rhymes are exact. This rhyme scheme would be represented as abaabcbcb, which means that line 1 rhymes with lines 3 and 4; line 2 rhymes with lines 5, 7, and 9; and line 6 rhymes with line 8. Such a rhyme scheme keeps the poem tightly constructed by repeating the rhyme on “ice” from early in the poem until the end.
The period between 1913, when Frost published his first book of poetry, A Boy’s Will, and 1923, when “Fire and Ice” appeared in the volume New Hampshire, was one of the most tumultuous decades in all of world history. In 1914, the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo by a member of a Serbian nationalist group, an act that catapulted Europe and much of the rest of the world into World War I. By the time the Treaty of Versailles, the final peace settlement ending the war, was signed in 1919, three great European dynasties had toppled and geographical boundaries had been redrawn throughout the world. This helped to shift the world’s social and cultural environment as well, moving it dramatically away from the values and beliefs of the previous century.
Many of the developments that contributed to the emerging social order had already occurred earlier in the century. The assembly line of Henry Ford altered the role of work and the workforce. The discoveries of Albert Einstein and Max Planck challenged the established views about the physical nature of the universe. The theories of Sigmund Freud revised perception of human nature. The artistic theories of the Cubists, Surrealists, and Modernists shifted perspectives on art and its relationship with man and nature. However, in spite of these factors, the period before 1913 basically revolved around the values of the Victorian era.
The war years from 1914 to 1918, however, created a sort of international loss of innocence, as countries and their citizens questioned the assumptions that had led them so willingly into war. The 1920s thus became a period of conflict and contrast, as the emerging value systems challenged the mores of the previous decades.
One major consequence of this was a transformation of the political balance in the United States. The United States did not enter the war until 1917, after the German Navy torpedoed the civilian ocean liner Lusitania, killing 128 U.S. citizens. The subsequent public outrage enabled Woodrow Wilson to gather idealistic support for entry into the war. However, the devastating casualties suffered by the troops eroded public support for both Wilson and his dream of a League of Nations, as the tone of national politics became increasingly isolationist. Warren G. Harding, a pleasant and good-looking man, easily defeated the Democratic candidate by campaigning against Wilson’s policies on a platform that advocated a return to “normalcy.” He wooed the voters with his promise of an easier, more prosperous future. Harding’s government, though popular, proved corrupt. After his death in 1923, several major political scandals were revealed.
At the same time voters rejected the idealism of Wilson, the country became a battleground between the forces of repression and hedonism. In 1919, Congress ratified the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which forbade the possession or sale of liquor. It soon became clear, however, that the amendment created many more problems than it solved. Enforcement became impossible, as defiance of the law spread through all levels of society. Local authorities often looked the other way, either out of reluctance to defy community
Compare & Contrast
- 1923: Adolph Hitler, who had attracted a following by delivering inflammatory, antigovernment speeches in the beer halls of Munich, is arrested after the failure of his “Beer Hall Putsch,” an attempt to seize control of the government.
1933: Hitler becomes chancellor of Germany.
1945: The Nazi reign ends when Germany is defeated.
1998: In Saxony-Anhalt, a German state, the Deutsche Volks Union receives 13 percent of the votes, 27 percent of the votes for those under 30. This is the highest total any extreme, right-wing party has received since the Nazi Party seized control of the government.
- 1923: The first issue of Time magazine is published by Henry Robinson Luce and Briton Hadden.
1936: Time Incorporated creates a new pictorial magazine, Life, which becomes immediately successful.
1999: Time-Warner controls an international communications empire that employs more than 67,500 employees in a wide variety of communications fields: television, movies, publishing, music, and sports.
- 1923: Yankee Stadium opens. It is called “The House that Ruth Built,” because of Babe’s Ruth’s amazing popularity.
1999: Tiger Stadium closes. It was one of the last three of the old-fashioned, open-air baseball stadiums in the nation. Now only Wrigley Field in Chicago and Fenway Park in Boston remain.
wishes or because of bribery. At the same time that the law enforcement community was being undermined, organized crime grew as gangster elements sought to control the huge new market for bootleg liquor.
Another area of conflicting values occurred in the growing division between urban and rural America. The 1920 federal census showed that for the first time in the history of the United States, a majority of the population, 51.4 percent, lived in urban areas. Manufacturing flourished and cities grew, while the farmer struggled to survive. During the boom period of the 1920s, little restraint was placed on business and huge profits were amassed. At the same time, however, the agricultural segment of the economy faltered as prices dropped. Many of the independent farmers who appear in so many of Frost’s poems were forced off the land.
More conflict occurred because of the growing hostilities between different segments of society. In the 1920s, intolerance became increasingly important as the central organizing principle for a number of social and political groups. Although there had frequently been antagonism between various ethnic and religious groups throughout the history of the United States, it had never been so well organized or accepted. The Ku Klux Klan held control of many areas, including some state and local governments in both the North and South, during this period. They created a reign of terror directed against blacks, Catholics, Jews, immigrants, and anyone who challenged their policies. The Klan reached the height of its power in 1924, with a membership that toTated more than four million.
Disillusionment with all authority helped to fuel a rebellion among youth—not only in America but throughout the Western world—as the Roaring Twenties achieved fame for the self-indulgent pursuit of fun and entertainment. Speakeasies, flappers, dance marathons, eccentric fads such as flagpole sitting, and ticker-tape parades are still among the most prominent visual memories of the era. At the same time, the burgeoning advertising industry sought to create a consumer culture. For critics of the time, such as H. L. Mencken, the decade was characterized best by its smugness, vulgarity, and its crass materialism.
A sense of dislocation and conflict was also mirrored in the arts and literature. Gertrude Stein referred to the artists of the period as the “Lost Generation,” describing their disillusion with the society. Many American artists fled to Europe from the United States, including Frost. There was a divide between poets such as Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, who were writing for an elite and knowledgeable audience, and the masses, whom Mencken called the “booboisie.” Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, Frost did not hold a negative view of the American public.
Most critics who discuss “Fire and Ice” do so in a broader discussion of Frost’s lyric poetry in general. During such a discussion in her article in the American Review, Louise Townsend Nicholl suggests that “The quality which is strong in all real poets of seeing the invisible, the telescope vision, crops out in Frost in many ways.... The things he sees are various, but the way he sees them remains the same.” Nicholl means that the ideas Frost conveys in his poems are consistent, though they are revealed through different stories or symbols. After stating that “Frost’s lyrics are among the most perfect being written,” Nicholl asserts that “Fire and Ice” is “fit to be” a “classic example of the lyric.” Malcolm Cowley, writing in The New Republic, describes Frost’s lyrics, “Fire and Ice” among them, as the “best of all” his work. He states that these poems “become more vivid in one’s memory with each new reading.”
Bruce Meyer is the director of the creative writing program at the University of Toronto. He has taught at several Canadian universities and is the author of three collections of poetry. In the following essay, Meyer analyzes Frost’s “Fire and Ice,” drawing parallels to Dante’s Inferno.
In his 1925 poem “The Hollow Men,” T. S. Eliot declared that the world would end “Not with a bang but a whimper.” Eliot’s played-out version of finality suggests dissipation, a world that is spent and futile. Robert Frost, on the other hand, suggests that the intensity of human passion and the raw power of nature are eternal forces. According to physics, after all, energy is never lost, it is only transferred from one thing to another. True to Frost’s idea of the endless cycles of nature in which Man is eternally locked, it is no wonder that his vision of the end of things in “Fire and Ice” is a statement about the power of human emotion and its endless capacity to make itself recognized and felt. For the persona of Frost’s poem who has “tasted of desire,” the world of human passion, whether love or hate, is indomitable.
Biographer Jeffrey Meyers points out in Robert Frost (1996) that Frost based his short, nine-line poem on a passage from Dante’s “Canto 32” of the Divine Comedy’s Inferno. In the source passage from Dante’s work, the “betrayers of their own kind are plunged, while in a fiery hell, up to their necks in ice.” Indeed, the center of Dante’s hell is made of ice; it is a place where the kinetic and frenetic passions of human beings are stilled just enough for them to meditate for an eternity on their wrongs. In this Dantean punishment, the “sinners are preserved in ice.” Frost says that “ice” will “suffice,” and Meyers points out that Frost’s use of the rhyme, in this case, is meant to underscore the natural sense of understatement in the word “suffice.”
The poem “Fire and Ice” is more complex than it seems at first glance. The very vagueness of the opening word, “Some,” locates the ideas of the poem in that vague, open-ended world of hearsay or speculation. It is remarkable how many of Frost’s poems are located in a reality that is less than concrete. Frost loves the realm of the speculative—the plastic, inner cosmos of internal monologue, second thought, and pensive rumination. And, true to Frost’s tendencies, even the initial “Some” is undercut by a second “Some” in the second line. What one must remember is that Frost is a great debater of ideas; he weighs opposing arguments. Rarely, in his poems, is there a single-minded line of thought. In this world of ideas and contraries, “fire” is set against “ice” in much the same way that the two neighbors are set on opposite sides of the fence in his “Mending Wall.” In the outcome of the debate between “fire” and “ice,” the persona of the poem decides that he must “hold with those who favor fire,” but then goes back upon his own decision and mediates it with his realization that “ice / Is also great / And would suffice.”
For Frost, particularly in this poem, the stance is that of the outsider, in much the same way that Dante’s condemned sufferers of the Inferno are outcasts from the central order of things who have had time and distance to reflect on their individual wills and choice of destinies and weigh those choices with knowledge and understanding. When the persona of the poem goes back on his initial position of believing that “the world will end in fire,” he is just mediating his ideas; he is reflecting on the situation from the experience of his own life. On this level, the poem suddenly becomes a very drastically understated reevaluation of the persona’s life, a self-judgment that, for the little that is said, is as harsh as any judgment meted out to those sad souls floundering in the muck of their former psychoses in Dante’s Malabowges.
Suddenly, “Fire and Ice” is not just a consideration of how the world will end or even a detached, theological commentary on contemporary spiritual vapidity; it is also a stunning self-indictment on the power of passion within an individual. The persona interjects in line 3 with a very personal, experiential note: “From what I’ve tasted of desire / I hold with those who favor fire.” The poem has, rhetorically, moved from being an overview of hearsay to being a personal statement on the experience of desire. At this point, however, the movement of the argument shifts again: “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.” In a very short space, the poem is transformed from being a statement about how the world will end, to a muffled reminiscence on desire, to a commentary on the nature of hatred. The speaker does not elaborate on what events caused him to be hated or loved in the first place. He does not need to elaborate, because the poem, through this manner of emotional ellipsis, becomes a poem not about endings but of continuations. Frost’s thesis in the poem, as was Dante’s, is that “the evil that men do live after them” (Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar) and that human emotions, both good and bad, are unending.
Not only has the persona felt hated, he alludes to the fact that something—that was of value in his life—has been destroyed. The very iciness of the absence that has been created (an iciness far more sinister than the storms that break the branches of the birches in “Birches,” an absence almost as puzzling and troubling as the absence of the wood piler in “The Wood Pile”) is masked by the word “suffice.” “Suffice,” in its very casual sense, implies that something is complete or has run its course but that it could still do with more or could still be continuing in some way. In the case of “Fire and Ice,” the reader is not told what that something is, yet it
What Do I Read Next?
- This Fabulous Century: 1920-30 by Time-Life Books, published in 1969, is a good introduction to the period. The brief text highlights majors figures, trends, and fads, providing a vivid visual portrait of a flamboyant and controversial decade.
- Scott E. Hastings introduces fiercely independent farmers and artisans clinging to an archaic way of life that is frequently presented in Frost’s poetry in The Last Yankees: Folkways in Eastern Vermont and the Border Country (1990).
- Centennial Essays, compiled by the Committee on the Frost Centennial of the University of Southern Mississippi in 1970, includes forty-one articles that give an excellent overview, focusing on Frost’s achievement, his views on nature, themes, contexts, methods, theories, and religion. The collection contains biographical articles and reminiscences as well.
- In the 1999 biography Robert Frost: A Life, Jay Parini provides a sympathetic and readable portrait that includes an insightful analysis of Frost’s poetry.
- Frost is often compared to Edwin Arlington Robinson, another New England poet of the same period. Robinson’s Selected Poems, published in 1997, provides an opportunity to compare and contrast his poetry with Frost’s.
is apparent that what happened was somehow “sufficient,” though there may be more to it than what is described.
What is both troubling and beautiful about “Fire and Ice” is how little is says while saying a great deal. This paradox is a challenge to the reader. In this moot court where fire is weighed against ice, in this place where the instruments of emotional destruction are measured and compared, Frost issues a conundrum, a perplexing question, as to which is greater. To answer that question is, in many ways, an over-reading of the poem. The
“... ‘Fire and Ice’ is not just a consideration of how the world will end or even a detached, theological commentary on contemporary spiritual vapidity; it is also a stunning self-indictment on the power of passion within an individual.”
issue is not which—fire or ice—is greater, though the reader is left with that question to mull over, and the presentation of a question in a poem is always good for prolonging the consideration of a poem’s central issues. But this prolongation is a deflection. The real issue is not which is greater but how great and resilient human emotions really are.
Dante’s cosmos is a place where life continues after life, where one cannot run away from one’s past actions. The Divine Comedy is, perhaps, the greatest study in cause-and-effect relationships in literature. Frost has taken this issue up in “Fire and Ice” through ellipsis—by not saying what he is really feeling or thinking, but merely weighing two very different elements of destruction. On a very subtle level, Frost may be giving away his sense of which is greater, fire or ice, in the rhyme scheme of the poem. “Fire” and “ice” are repeated twice, and, rhetorically, when items in a poem are repeated twice, the repetitions are usually for emphasis—a gesture where the poet draws particular attention to an idea or an image, almost as if he is repeating it in case the reader missed it or didn’t get it the first time. The subtle clue to the issue of which is greater may lie in the rhyme words that Frost chooses to associate with “fire” and “ice.” “Fire” is rhymed with “desire,” a rhyme that suggests the heat of passion—the destructive intensity of something that is both consuming yet sustaining at the same time. “Ice” is rhymed with “twice,” almost as if the poet is trying to let us in on his little joke of repetitions. The two end rhymes not associated with either “fire” or “ice” are “hate” and “great,” as if to say that hatred is something entirely destructive, impassionate, and cold. “Hate” and “great” are also associated with the “ice” half of the syllogism the poem forms, and the suggestion here is that “ice” is the worst of the two elements because it neither sustains nor consumes what it touches, but merely makes things inanimate and perpetual. That is why Dante put ice at the center of his hell and why Frost chooses to comment on the ultimate destructiveness of hatred as a human passion. The betrayers of “Canto 32”—Brutus, Cassius, and Judas—are consumed by Satan like popsicles on a hot summer day, yet they are perpetually preserved so that their torment is everlasting. In this light, it is almost as if Frost is saying that love and desire run their course, but hatred is permanent. Like the ice of Dante’s innermost Malabowge, the ice of Frost’s little poem never seems to go away. It can “suffice” because there is always something more to it—something preserving, chilling, and imperishable.
Source: Bruce Meyer, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2000.
Cowley, Malcolm, “Frost: A Dissenting Opinion,” in The New Republic, Vol. III, No. 11, September 11, 1944, pp. 312-13.
Meyers, Jeffrey, Robert Frost, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
Nicholl, Louise Townsend, “New Hampshire,” in American Review, Vol. 2, No. 6. November-December 1924, pp. 679-83.
Pack, Robert, “Frost’s Enigmatical Reserve: The Poet as Teacher and Preacher,” in Robert Frost, edited by Harold Bloom, New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986, pp. 9-21.
This article describes Frost as both a teacher and a preacher, analyzing Frost’s habit of indirection in his poetry. The entire collection is filled with worthwhile insights into Frost’s style.
This volume provides a very good introduction to Frost’s poetry.
Thomson, Lawrance, Fire and Ice: The Art and Thought of Robert Frost, New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1942.
The author discusses theme and style throughout Frost’s work, including a helpful consideration of theme, structure, and poetics in “Fire and Ice.”