Fire and Ice
BY ROBERT FROST
The twentieth century poet Robert Frost wrote a work entitled “Fire and Ice,” asking a question to better understand the world: what is more damaging to society: desire or hatred? Since Frost was an American modernist writer, he lived around the time of the first World War, a time that would challenge the optimistic values that humans had long held. Destruction pervaded Frost’s era, for the war caused countless deaths and destroyed numerous social structures. The speaker in “Fire and Ice” seeks to answer a debatable enigma as to what caused such chaos. More so, by knowing the answer, he will be able to predict how mankind will destroy the world in the future. From considering his own experiences, the speaker concludes that hatred, not desire, will be the ruin of the human race.
The first two lines usher in the poem’s debate: “Some say the world will end in fire/ Some say in ice” (lines 1-2). Each complete statement is a declarative decision as to what will be mankind’s downfall though there is an obvious disagreement. At first, it seems that fire is the crowning element. The speaker says “From what I’ve tasted of desire/ I hold with those who favor fire” (lines 3-4). The listener knows that fire symbolizes desire due to the rhyme linking the two words together; their sounds harmonize with one another, comparing them metaphorically. Drawing on his own personal (yet limited) experiences of ambition, greed and/or lust, the speaker views desire as something that will destroy the world. He sees that desire drives people to not consider others as equally valuable as themselves for it tends to shut them off from one another. When humans consider only their own wants, they lose touch with the feelings of others since their focus is inward and not outward. Consumed by desire, people will tend to tyrannize others to achieve their ambitions. Humans will bring their own demise on themselves due to their consuming lusts. The first line in the poem can be seen as a biblical reference to God’s judgment on the Earth. The Bible speaks of how the world will end in “hail, fire and brimstone.” Yet this allusion works for ice just as much as it does for fire due to the word “hail.”
It seems that the speaker has made his decision, until the word “but” occurs. The speaker considers another element: “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” (lines 5-9). The first line seems to indicate that desire has not succeeded in destroying the world; if it had, why would the planet need to be destroyed a second time? Even when desire has been satisfied, it is only for a moment. This seems to point to the nature of desire, how it often returns to consume us even when we think we’ve fulfilled it. Therefore, the speaker turns to another destructive emotion: hatred. He knows from experience that hate is just as potent as desire. Though the words “hate” and “ice” do not rhyme, their consonant endings still link them together as metaphorical ideas. Like fire, ice is “also great” which would seem to put the speaker at a standstill on his musings. But the last line settles the issue once and for all: “And would suffice.” The word “suffice” denotes a completion of a mission, an ultimate satisfaction which will not occur twice. Once it’s mission is complete it is complete. Rhyme links “ice” with this concept; it is even found in the word “suffice” itself. The word sounds like actual ice freezing an object over with it’s stinging sound, giving the listener the sense that not only that the poem is over but the debate overall. The rhythm of the poem even points to ice being greater than fire. It takes only a couplet to form the speaker’s decision about fire, yet it takes a five rushing lines to point to ice’s fury. Outright hatred will lead humans to destroy one another with no strings attached. When you despise someone, you generally do not beat around the bush with how you feel about them. Either you avoid them or unleash your wrath. Failure to love one another will surely lead to mankind’s death. In some cases, desire can be seen as something positive rather than negative; but hatred is negative overall. If the poem’s tone was bleak before, it is even more so now.
Pursuing one’s desires, in the long run, can be a positive benefit for others, especially in the economic and sexual arenas; through capitalism, consumers and employees both benefit, howbeit sometimes not strictly equally. But still, both are pleasured. In sexuality, male and females give each other satisfaction to the benefit of each. But hatred does not allow any to experience happiness; it is the antithesis to life and desire. As a result, it leaves destruction. And unlike desire, it gets the job done by bringing closure, though a ruthless one.