Human Destructiveness In Robert Frost's "Fire and Ice"

Fumarole on Mount Redoubt, Alaska, USA. One day before the eruption of 2009-03-22 the volcano shows steam venting and the summit glacier melting and breaking in an "ice piston" feature. --Cyrus Read
Fumarole on Mount Redoubt, Alaska, USA. One day before the eruption of 2009-03-22 the volcano shows steam venting and the summit glacier melting and breaking in an "ice piston" feature. --Cyrus Read | Source

Destruction

Source

What's the poem about?

Frost’s short and seemingly direct poem, “Fire and Ice” is sometimes interpreted, at least by “some of the scientific members of the academic community” as speculation on scientific theories regarding the end of the world (Hansen). This view of the poem is interesting, but it overlooks the poem’s symbolism, and the poet’s bent toward using outer objects as metaphors for inner states (Hansen). Rather than idle conjecture about astronomic theory, “Fire and Ice” is a commentary on the destructive forces hidden within the human heart, and the very real possibility that mankind will be the engineer of its own destruction.

Robert Frost, 1941.
Robert Frost, 1941. | Source

Frost's Modernism

Though he does not necessarily agree with his contemporaries on what poetry ought to be—indeed, modernists often disagree with each other—Frost falls into the category of “modern” writers. Writing between the world wars, these writers are partially shaped by, and often write in reaction to, industrialism and World War I (Baym 1882). Frost did not spend the war years in Europe, as some of his contemporaries did, but no American or European living during that time could have been entirely insulated from the unprecedented destruction of the Great War. Written in 1923, “Fire and Ice” postdates the end of that war and predates the next one by over a decade. Though the poem’s symbolism probably refers more to the capacity for destruction within individual humans, Frost was likely also thinking of the dire consequences when desire and hate are allowed to operate on a grand scale.

Composite image of a supernova within the galaxy M100 that may contain the youngest known black hole in our cosmic neighborhood.
Composite image of a supernova within the galaxy M100 that may contain the youngest known black hole in our cosmic neighborhood. | Source

Desire and Hatred, not Astronomy

The eminent astronomer, Harlow Shapley, took the poem’s first lines, “Some say the world will end in fire/Some say in ice” as a reference to a conversation between himself and Frost, and a discussion of competing hypotheses on how the world will end (1-2, Hansen). The astronomer saw the poem as an example of science influencing art, but the third and fourth lines speak of human emotion, not scientific theory. The speaker says, “From what I’ve tasted of desire/I hold with those who favor fire” (3-4). Desire has the potential to be a positive, creative force, but like fire, it can be an all-consuming horror when permitted to grow out of control. Each human possesses this capacity for destruction, and many have seen their personal worlds reduced to ash by unfulfilled, or insatiable, desire. Having lived through the first global war, Frost probably has no trouble imagining human desire as a force capable of ending the world.

Frost penned “Fire and Ice” between the world wars, or he might well have ranked ice, which he likens to hate (6), as the first most likely cause of the world’s demise. But, having cast his vote for fire, he goes on, almost casually, to contemplate a second method for the world’s destruction. He says, “But if it had to perish twice,” as if the end of the world were a temporary malady (5, Hansen). Following on the heels of this seemingly offhand comment, the next two lines link the darkest of human emotions, hatred, with life-obliterating ice (6-7). Lacking any of desire’s potential for positive impact, hatred is cold, hard and utterly implacable. Hatred, at least as much as desire, motivates humanity’s most destructive acts. Hatred has thrust many lives into darkness, and continues to do so. If an alternative to fire must be contemplated, the speaker states that “for destruction ice/Is also great/And would suffice.” (7-9).

“Fire and Ice” probably is partially inspired by scientific conjecture, but the poem’s real meaning is closer to that hinted at in “Desert Places.” Astronomy and cosmic theory concern Frost far less than the “chronic malfunction of the human heart” (Hansen). The world could end tomorrow or a million years from now, but what really frightens the poet is the darkness in his “own desert places” (15). As a modern writer whose world has already been shaken by one global conflict, he recognizes that the same desire and hatred that can make one man’s life miserable also hold the potential to plunge entire continents—the entire world, even—into war and chaos.

Sources

Baym, Nina. “American Literature 1914-1945”. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Shorter 7th Edition. New York, London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008. 1882. Print.

Frost, Robert. “Desert Places”. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Shorter 7th Edition. Ed. Baym, Nina. New York, London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008. 1964. Print.

Frost, Robert. “Fire and Ice”. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Shorter 7th Edition. Ed. Baym, Nina. New York, London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008. 1963. Print.

Hansen, Tom. "Frost's Fire and Ice." The Explicator 59.1 (2000): 27. Literature Resource Center. Web. 4 Apr. 2013.

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