Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 677
“Fire and Ice,” by the American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963), is typical of this writer’s work in many ways, including in its clarity and wit, as well as in its plain sentence structure, use of rhyme, and use of meter during a period when all three were often not in fashion.
Throughout the poem, Frost uses iambic meter, a kind of rhythm in which odd syllables are unaccented but even syllables are stressed (as in rebel). Iambic meter is perhaps the most common meter in all English poetry, partly because iambic rhythms come closest to the rhythms of normal, everyday speech. Many of Frost’s poems are deliberately intended to seem colloquial, relaxed, and common in the ways they move and sound, and “Fire and Ice” is no exception. Even the title seems plain, straightforward, and lacking in mystery. The title also accurately foreshadows the subjects of the work. Frost makes an implied promise in the title and then fulfills that promise in the poem. From the title alone, we don’t know exactly what he will do with the ideas of “fire and ice,” but we can be confident that those topics will be examined in some way. The title is not meant to trick, deceive, or be merely clever.
The poem opens by presenting the opinions of others before the speaker presents his own (1-2). Yet the opinions of others are conflicting and contrasting, and so the speaker creates some momentary suspense: which alternative will the speaker endorse (if either)? Will he make a clear choice? Will he offer a third or fourth possibility? Or will he (as in fact he does) somehow endorse both alternatives? At first the speaker seems to endorse the idea that the world will end in a massive blaze of fire (4-5). Then, however, he seems to endorse as well the alternative idea that the world will end by being frozen in ice (5-9). Part of the wit of the poem, in fact, depends on its pronounced sense of whimsy: the speaker takes a potentially very serious subject and treats it with clever humor, especially in the final two lines. It is as if he doesn’t really fear the kinds of destruction he imagines: the days of total destruction of the earth are well in the distance, if they ever come at all. The poem begins by seeming to raise a serious issue, but then it ends by making light of its whole basic premise. Instead of offering us profound wisdom on a weighty and intriguing metaphysical dilemma, the speaker offers us a wry joke. This joke is all the more whimsical because of the very brevity of the poem.
Yet the text’s tone is not entirely whimsical. The speaker confesses to having felt both the “fire” of strong “desire” and the “ice” of destructive “hate.” These confessions, especially the latter, imply his fundamental honesty. Paradoxically, his willingness to admit to feeling hatred makes him seem all the more admirably trustworthy. Yet his confession also suggests that hate is the kind of destructiveness we truly need to worry about. The world, if it ends, will end sometime in the distant future and in a way that no one can confidently predict. In the meantime, however, hate will cause much more genuine destructiveness in the lives of real people than will some imagined apocalypse. Without seeming at all moralistic (in fact, while seeming precisely the opposite), the poem encourages us to think about the past, present, and future destruction wrought by hate rather than worrying about how the physical world might eventually end in some entirely imagined future.
Thus, although the speaker by the end of the poem seems almost callously indifferent to the particular method by which the world will be destroyed, in some ways he also seems quite wise. Rather than worrying about an event that he and his readers will probably never actually experience, he subtly reminds us of the kind of destructiveness—hate—that is with us (and often within us) every single day.
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