Tuesday, March 26, 2024



Fire and Ice

By Robert Frost

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.

"Fire and Ice" is a short poem by Robert Frost that discusses the end of the world, likening the elemental force of fire with the emotion of desire, and ice with hate. It was first published in December 1920.

According to one of Frost's biographers, "Fire and Ice" was inspired by a passage in Canto 32 of Dante's Inferno, in which the worst offenders of hell (the traitors) are frozen in the ninth and lowest circle:
"a lake so bound with ice,
It did not look like water, but like a glass...right clear
I saw, where sinners are preserved in ice."

Illustration of 1587 by Stradanus of The Nine Circles of Hell from Dante's Inferno

In an anecdote he recounted in 1960 in a "Science and the Arts" presentation, the prominent astronomer Harlow Shapley claims to have inspired "Fire and Ice". Shapley describes an encounter he had with Frost a year before the poem was published in which Frost, noting that Shapley was the astronomer of his day, asked him how the world will end. Shapley responded that either the sun will explode and incinerate the Earth, or the Earth will somehow escape this fate only to end up slowly freezing in deep space. Shapley was surprised at seeing "Fire and Ice" in print a year later, and referred to it as an example of how science can influence the creation of art, or clarify its meaning.

In a 1999 article, John N. Serio claims that the poem is a compression of Dante's Inferno. He draws a parallel between the nine lines of the poem with the nine rings of Hell, and notes that, like the downward funnel of the rings of Hell, the poem narrows considerably in the last two lines.

John Serio asserts that Frost's diction further highlights the parallels between Frost's discussion of desire and hate with Dante's outlook on sins of passion and reason with sensuous and physical verbs describing desire and loosely recalling the characters Dante met in the upper rings of Hell: "taste" (recalling the Glutton), "hold" (recalling the adulterous lovers), and "favor" (recalling the hoarders). In contrast, hate is discussed with verbs of reason and thought ("I think I know.../To say...").

Serio praises the poem for its compactness, arguing that "Fire and Ice" signaled for Frost "a new style, tone, manner, [and] form" and that its casual tone masks the serious question it poses to the reader.


. . .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.

. . 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.


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