A Poem by Robert Frost (1874-1963)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings..© 2008
Type of Work
......."Fire and Ice" is a lyric poem of nine lines centering on destructive emotions.
......."Fire and Ice" first appeared in the December 1920 issue of Harper's. In 1923, it appeared in New Hampshire, a collection of Frost's poems published in New York by Henry Holt & Co.
.......Frost wrote "Fire and Ice" in iambic tetrameter (lines 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7) and iambic dimeter (lines 2, 8, and 9). In iambic tetrameter, a line has four pairs of syllables, each pair with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. In iambic dimeter, a line has two pairs of syllables, each pair with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. The first two lines of the poem demonstrate the tetrameter-dimeter format.
.......The poem contains three units of end rhyme. The first unit consists of lines 1, 3, and 4. The second consists of lines 2, 5, 7, and 9. The third consists of lines 6 and 8. All of the end rhymes are masculine.
Text of the Poem and Notes
Some say the world1will end in fire,
1...world: Frost appears to mean the world of an individual—that is, his life—as well as civilization itself.
Figures of Speech
Some say the world will end in fire,Anaphora
Some say the world1will end in fire,Paradox
But if it had to perish twiceDante's Influence
.......Frost derived inspiration for "Fire and Ice" from "Inferno," one of the three divisions of Dante’s monumental epic poem, The Divine Comedy.
.......As noted above under "Dante's Influence," Frost's poem alludes to Dante's The Divine Comedy—in particular, to the sins and punishments of the souls in hell. In the "Inferno" section of The Divine Comedy, Dante places those who yielded to unrestrained desire in the upper levels of hell. He places
those who committed what he regards as the most serious sin, betrayal, in the lake of ice in lowest level of hell. Judas and Satan are among the traitors confined to this region. However, in alluding to Dante, Frost substitutes hatred for betrayal as the offense that condemns its perpetrator to the ultimate punishment: imprisonment in the lake of ice. At the same time, he says hatred and desire
are equally condemnable. If he is right, the haters would be in the same circle as those who committed sins of unbridled desire. One may fairly argue that Frost's substitution of hatred for betrayal distorts and weakens the allusion to Dante. Moreover, the reference to two different groups in lines 1 and 2 (the first saying the world ends in fire and the second saying it ends in ice) likewise
seems amiss, for in both cases Frost is alluding to a single source, Dante. Finally, Frost appears to misfire when he parallels hate (line 6) with desire (line 3) as types of destructive behavior, or sins. Hate, of course, is destructive and sinful. Desire per se is not. There is nothing wrong with desiring a spouse, a better job, or a new car. What Frost is attempting to damn is
inordinate and immoral desire—for money, power, sex, drink, food, etc.
.......The central theme of "Fire and Ice" is that human emotions are destructive when allowed to run amok. They can destroy a person morally; they can destroy him mentally and physically. Not frequently, unbridled emotions—such as those of an Adolf Hitler—can destroy entire countries and even threaten to destroy civilization itself.
.......Robert Frost (1874-1963) was born in San Francisco, California, where he spent his childhood. In 1885, after his father died of tuberculosis, the Frosts moved to Massachusetts. There, Robert graduated from high school, sharing top honors with a student he would later marry, Elinor White.
1...Uncontrolled sexual desire can lead to rape, child molestation, and the spread of disease. Do you think Frost had this type of desire in mind when he wrote "Fire and Ice"?