Robert Frost - "Fire and Ice" Analysis
The Elemental Median
To burn or to freeze? That is the question posed by Robert Frost in his 1923 rhetorically titled poem, “Fire and Ice.” Frost speaks of the world’s destruction as played through the voices of doomsayers throughout the history of the Earth. The poem shows a comparison of two simple opposites of primal elements that will by their very nature lead to the same end result. The inescapable outcome of death will occur regardless of the path it must take, be it to burn brightly and end suddenly in a flame of desire or to be slowly and inextricably cooled and destroyed by ice. Frost’s use of metaphors, opposite comparisons, and his trademark use of nature as a dynamic force are all on masterful display in this poem.
Frost, like so many others, displays an appreciation for the embers of desire. In his opinion, he’d much rather have lived a fiery and meaningful life and gone out on the same note, rather than suffering the slow defeat of a withering and frosty grave. He uses a metaphor that is simple, yet terribly effective in this context. Commonly, desire has always been described as a whimsical emotion, something that happens quickly or in the moment, much like a flame erupting from a match. Frost uses this metaphor advantageously in this poem to describe his preferred way of the apocalypse. When the end comes, he’d rather it be sudden and without remorse. Fire, historically has always been described as passionate or loving. In “Fire and Ice,” he relates it to desire (which goes along with being passionate), but as a whole he turns it into something terribly destructive. I think the use of desire as being an all-encompassing destructive metaphor adds a certain hint irony to the poem as one would not commonly relate desire as being a destructive force. The other metaphor shown is hate, which is characterized by the ice, something that is developed and nurtured over a period of time slowly consuming whatever it comes across. Again he uses something that is popularly used; the reader would usually think of terms such as someone being coldhearted, coldblooded, cold as ice, etc… all of these terms define someone wherein there isn’t much love in their life. Frost definitely sees the powerful nature of ice as something terrifying and awful. The metaphor of hate being ice emits some strong emotions from the reader because honestly, who would want to end it all in hate? What Frost is trying to do through these metaphors is he is trying to lead the reader to accept and agree with his opinion over one they may have previously formulated. The metaphors also bring the powers of these elements together into something that hits a little closer to home for the reader – human emotions. Everyone at some time has felt either a desire for something or a hatred for something and seeing the world end in one of these two emotions makes it a little clearer for the reader to understand just exactly what they’re dealing with. It also helps that the two emotions and natural forces are working as opposing forces.
Frost’s way of comparing opposites can sometimes be a risky method, especially when he basically says that you can either chose right or left, but you’re going to end up in the same place. He starts off the poem with the first line introducing fire and letting the reader know what the poem is about by telling us that some people prefer the opinion that fire is the way the world will end. The second line comes in introducing ice, letting the reader know that some people will prefer the opposite to line one. Frost then lets us in on what exactly it is we’re dealing with when we speak of fire and ice. In line three, he says that he has felt desire in his life and follows it in line four by dubbing desire the metaphor for fire. Line five is a connecting line between the two opposites. He continues in line six by starting off the metaphor for ice, letting the reader know the he has also felt enough hate in his life (hate being the metaphor for ice). In lines seven and eight, Frost lets us know that this form of destruction is also a great way to end it. In the ninth line, he says that ice will also suffice for the apocalypse. He ties the two opposites together by telling us that no matter which course we take, the end result will be the same.
This now adds another layer to the other opposites in the poem, desire and hate. Is Frost saying that regardless of which of these we feel, they will both lead to the same end? One of the definitions for desire is, “to want strongly,” whereas a given definition for hate is, “the emotion of intense dislike.” Another definition for desire is, “the feeling that accompanies an unsatisfied state.” It’s not exactly rocket science to think that a person would intensely dislike an unsatisfied state, though when someone usually thinks of desire, they would lean more toward the first definition. I believe for the sake of this poem that Frost is leaning more towards this second definition for desire when drawing the ending result of his comparison on his opposites. The poem uses the context of the word differently as the reader continues through the poem in order to draw its conclusion that desire and hate will both conclude the same. It’s an interesting, yet very deep way of conveying his message and the fact that it can make both the natural spectrum and the metaphor oppose each other is just an undoubtedly brilliant literary technique.
Another way to look at the words would be to pose a question to the metaphor: A desire/hatred for what? The answers are not explicitly stated in the poem, so the ambiguity leaves the reader to formulate their own interpretation. Since it’s really left up to the reader to interpret their own desires and hates, the sense of ambiguity the poem delivers opens up to an even larger audience. Though with the perfect circle that forms from the poles, one can only assume that the desire isn’t really as great as it’s chocked up to be. For instance, if the desire was actually a desire for power, a desire for death, a desire for terror, then all of a sudden the poem gets a completely different read. When this point is brought up, to fit the opposites mold, the hatred could actually be a hatred for something terrible (a hatred for genocide, a hatred for racism), while the desire points in the same direction. This, though, would leave Robert Frost himself out in the cold so to speak, since he originally sides with fire/desire before coming the conclusion that it actually doesn’t really matter. It’s interesting to think of the endless possibilities this poem has because of its sense of ambiguity. He is really just choosing the means to reach his end through the opposite forces and justifying it through the metaphor.
Another view of the opposing forces would be in the voice of the poem (Frost) and who his target audience is. If this poem is for the audience who (all metaphor aside) would rather see the world end in ice, Frost tries to con the opposing reader into changing their opinion to view his own. The metaphor relates the word hate with ice and desire with fire. Of the two, the unsuspecting reader will automatically consider desire to be the better choice of the two and will side with Frost, even though the end result is still the same. Regardless of if his poem deals with opposition, he is attempting to eliminate the opposition to his argument and if the reader still decides to end it in hate, then so be it.
The opposite natural forces, fire and ice, when stripped of the metaphor are still both full forces of destruction when left untamed. Forest fires, the ice-age, explosions, hypothermia, third degree burns, frostbite. All of these horrific terms have something in common. They are all related to a destructive force. They are all also caused by the two natural forces in this poem: fire and ice. Throughout his career, Robert Frost continued to write about the forces of nature. He always brings up something extremely simple and adds major depth through it by either comparing the natural force to a human emotion or personifying it. Frost’s perception on natural forces was that there are two sides to how the Earth or the universe worked, good and evil. In this poem, Frost examines two of the evil sides of the naturalistic forces. Throughout the history of the Earth, there have been many catastrophic events that have nearly eliminated all life. There has been at least four “Ice Ages” in the Earth’s history, with the earliest one hypothesized at happening around 2.7 to 2.3 billion years ago. Approximately 20,000 years ago, the Earth suffered through its last Ice Age. This is a known fact, and Frost exhibits his fear of the world ending again in this way in his poem. The Earth will work the way it will, whether we want it to or not. It lives and breathes just like the rest of us and for the most part, we have no control over this (anthropogenic climate change aside). Even today, people are convinced that the Earth will be consumed by fire. One of the scares for the whole 2012 (the prediction that the world will end in 2012) ordeal is that fire will consume the Earth. These aren’t exactly new ideas either! In many world religions, fire ranges from being a symbol of enlightenment to being a symbol of terror. In this respect, Frost’s poem opens itself to a wide range of interpretations and a grander audience.
Another useful aside to using natural forces in this poem is the fact that as a whole, humans are afraid of the apocalypse and we really can’t be too sure that it won’t end in a natural disaster. At any moment, the Earth could go through one of its cycles, bringing raging fires through volcanoes, ozone depletion, or lighting strikes or it could run cycle through another ice age, bringing cold and darkness across the Earth. The use of personifying these natural forces with evil and invoking the end of the world in this poem is very powerful and it does cause the reader to think (albeit rather morbidly) about which means they would choose to reach the same destination.
Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice” is a very interesting poem indeed. It pulls the strings on human emotions by bringing us to think of how we would want to suffer through the end of the world. By using two natural forces and assigning each a metaphor, he tricks the neutral reader into focusing more on his side of the question, rather than opposing him. His powerful use of metaphor in this poem relating the end of the world in fire to desire and a bone chilling apocalypse of ice to hate resonates throughout the body, especially when the reader actually visualizes the event taking place in both manners. The use of nature as a definite evil also emits some emotion from the reader as it’s known that even though in our lifetime, the world hasn’t attempted to cycle through an ice age or a fire storm, it has done it before and it is fully capable of doing it again. This is what makes us want to choose between fire and ice in the poem. Also, the reader’s choice is further enhanced through the sense of ambiguity in the metaphor. When we think of what exactly it is that the reader desires or hates, the poem can do a complete one hundred and eighty degree turn and create totally different feelings for every reader on every single read. Although the end result is the same, “Fire and Ice” brings up thoughts and emotions from a reader that are not casually thought about through the use of his metaphor, opposing forces, and natural destruction.
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