For all the poem’s structural simplicity, Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice” perfectly encapsulates the poetic concept of complex metaphor. The metaphor, in which the universe mirrors the human soul, has two contrasting components: fire and ice, the personal and the cosmic, the real and the theoretical, desire and hate.
Anyone who has ever attended a commencement ceremony in the United States has certainly heard Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” often recited poorly. The poem’s overuse is a shame, for it is a well-crafted work and emblematic of Frost: conversational in tone, restrained in its description, direct yet concealing many subtleties. Its narrative voice is Frost as the flinty, laconic New Englander, not prone to exaggeration or emotive outburst.
“Fire and Ice” is another well-known, short Frost poem, though one not nearly as exhaustively quoted. Unlike the tranquil autumn surroundings in “The Road Not Taken,” it deals with a more somber subject: the end of the world. But like “The Road Not Taken,” and consistent with Frost’s characteristic New England persona, it is short and direct:
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.
It is a simple poem, a mere nine lines—fifty-one words. Aside from “destruction,” every word has no more than two syllables. The language is simple, almost non-poetic, devoid of any allusion, simile, or florid effusions. Yet from this simplicity a complex metaphorical structure emerges.
The poem encompasses the universe and the forces behind the world’s undoing and at the same time peers into the depths of the human soul. Indeed, it is a poem of stark contrasts: fire against ice, the cosmic against the personal, the theoretical against the real, desire against hate. Frost achieves a marvelous juxtaposition of many polar opposites and renders them inseparable, as both are essential to the poem’s central metaphor.
The vague “some say” without the narrative voice taking sides immediately presents the viewpoint of a dispassionate observer, not particularly invested in either view at the outset. The end of the world is a theory with which others are concerned. (The astronomer Harlow Shapley claimed that the poem appeared shortly after a conversation in which he explained to Frost that the sun would either expand and devour the earth or burn out, leaving the earth to freeze in space.)
The introduction of fire and ice as the end of the world leads the reader initially to think of the physical world. But then comes the first hint that the poem is not discussing scientific theories. Frost equates fire with desire and ice with hate, both very human emotions, very real, and very well known to both Frost and every reader because of their shared humanity. These far-distant, theoretical world-ending cataclysms may after all prove relevant, for their destruction has a mirror in human behavior.
In comparing scientific theories to human emotions, Frost makes a subtle use of irony. Science and emotion have inverted roles. The science—the postulated end of the world—is the theoretical, while the inner human emotions are the real and because of their reality render the abstract scientific thought more meaningful. Science finds explication in the human emotions, not vice versa, as conventional wisdom would expect.
The poem presents two further contrasts for unification: the external with the internal and the cosmic with the intimate. These two contrasts may be taken as one. On the external side, the poem is about as grandiose as Frost gets: the future end of the world, either in raging conflagration or in the grip of crushing glaciers. Both forces are understated, mentioned as mere “fire” and “ice,” but the reader knows their power must be immense if they are to destroy the world. Contrasting with these impersonal, chthonic forces are the internal, deeply personal emotions of desire and hate, likened to the two literally earth-shattering forces. Again, the forces are better understood because they have their analogies within the human soul and vice versa. The human soul serves as a mirror of the entire universe.
Then there is the most visible contrast: fire and ice, desire and hate. As much as he favors it, the flame of desire still destroys. Yet though desire ultimately consumes, it impels human action and human achievement, and is thus both the nobler and more human of the two emotions. Desire’s opposite, hate, is not the burning hatred of an enemy or a rival, really spurred by love of what is threatened, but true, pure hate, the absence of any desire—really, an utterly inhuman indifference. It is the cold, calculating hatred of a serial killer or a totalitarian regime. It is the absence of desire just as ice is formed by the absence of warmth.
But ice only “suffices” for the world’s ending. A world destroyed by the flames of competing desires is ultimately a more human one than one gripped in the glacial vise of utter indifference.
“Fire and Ice” perfectly encapsulates the poetic concept of metaphor. And for all the poem’s structural simplicity, the metaphor it uses is complex and multi-layered. The metaphor, the end of the world, has two contrasting components, fire and ice. Each of these, in turn, represents desire and hate. Then the contrast between the concrete, inner emotions and the theoretical, cosmic forces represents knowledge of the universe as achievable through knowledge of the human soul. Frost achieves such a subtle, variegated reading almost unnoticeably in his deceptively simple verse.
Some critics have seen in the poem an allusion to Dante’s Inferno, its nine lines hinting at the ninth circle, where ice binds the damned amid hell-fires. Such an elaborate and abstruse allusion is uncharacteristic of Frost, whose poetic voice is remarkable for its simplicity and directness. Indeed, to attribute too much to the poetic form detracts from its simplicity, which is where its power resides. The poem, and Frost’s poetry in general, is effective because of the subtleties of the direct, almost naïve description—as the complexity of a wine flavor comes from simple crushed grapes. It illustrates the power of subtlety and what simple language in the hands of a master can achieve.
Republished with gracious permission from The Chained Muse (March 2020).
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