In the first two lines Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice” (Arp 103), the speaker presents two options for the end of the world: one by fire and the other by ice. Many scientists, like Harlow Shapley, hold the belief that the end of the world will come in two forms, “either the earth would be incinerated, or a permanent ice age would gradually annihilate all life on earth” (Hansen 1). Although one
interpretation of the poem may be the geological destruction of the Earth, there are also several other interpretations. Initially, Frost wants the reader to contemplate the destructive powers of fire and ice. By changing the tense of the poem, Frost forces the reader to look back at the first two lines and consider a new meaning. The speaker goes on to relate fire to the human emotion of desire and ice to hate. Looking back at the third line, the use of “I” shows a personal connection to the emotions of desire and hate. Putting this poem in the context of a relationship, desire and hate are emotions that people often feel. The final line of the poem shows that human emotions of fire (desire) and ice (hate) are equally harmful and can easily bring about the “end” of a relationship. In order to effectively communicate the darker feelings felt in a relationship, the poet uses the following poetic devices: imagery, denotations and connotations, figurative language, musical devices, rhythm and meter, and the structure of the poem.
Imagery. The speaker utilizes images to help emphasize a person’s feelings in a relationship. The first image of fire is used both in the title and twice in the poem. Fire, when uncontrolled, viciously consumes all around it, wanting more and more as it grows. In a relationship, this fire can be set off in an instant. Desire, or jealousy, can occur in a relationship, and consequently can consume an individual until there is nothing left to burn. The second image of ice is also used in the title and twice in the poem. In Dante’s Infernal, the freezing temperatures of hell attempt to drive the life out of a person (Serio 1). Similarly, hate forces the other person away, driving the life out of a relationship. When left uncontrolled, these darker emotions can bring about the end of a relationship.
Denotations and Connotations. The poems meaning is also communicated by the denotations and connotations of words. The poet uses words that mean or suggest passion/consumption, knowledge/experience and death/destruction. Passion and consumption are suggested by the words “fire,” “desire,” and “taste.” The words “some say” represent knowledge of a group of people; while the first person “I know” suggests personal experience. “End,” “fire,” “ice,” “perish” and “destruction” all denote death and destruction.
Figurative Language. The use of figurate language further adds to the meaning of the poem. The primary source of figurative language is through the use of symbolization. Tom Hansen states that “fire is directly equated with desire, the kind that kindles antagonism and conflict” (1). The symbolism of fire, along with the denotations and connotations, further add to the meaning of the poem. Another use of symbolism is through the use of the word “ice.” Ice represents hate. Finally, the poet uses “the world” as a symbol for a relationship. All of these symbols help to tie together the poem by making desire and hate feelings felt in a relationship. In addition to the use of symbols, the poet also uses understatements to add to the tone. The poem ends with the line “And would suffice” which oversimplifies the meaning that has been created. By using this line, the poet emphasizes the harm of desire and hate in a relationship. Lastly, paradox is used in the line: “But if I had to perish twice”. While a person is unable to die two times, the line is used figuratively to demonstrate that desire is equally as harmful as hate.
Musical Devices. Throughout the poem, the poet uses musical devices to continue to add to the meaning. The use of the long “i” sound in “fire” and “ice” helps to slow down and simplify the poem. This is euphonies with the use of the long “a” sound in “hate” and “great.” The use of these musical devices is important because the effect is a nursery rhyme feeling that presents a simple and plain truth. In the first and second lines, the use of alliteration is found with the repetition of the “s” sound, emphasizing the simple form of the poem. Alliteration is also used in “favor fire” (Line 4). The repetition of the “f” sound places importance upon fire, and suggests the great harm that desire can cause. Emmet Rosenfeld notes that the use of alliteration in Fire and Ice creates a sing-song effect that helps to establish the mood of the poem (1).
The most important musical device that the poet utilizes is that of rhyme. Although the poem does not contain end rhyme, the last word in every other line has the repetition of an accented vowel sound. The first rhyme scheme is the long “i” sound in “fire,” “desire,” and “fire.” Another rhyme scheme is the harsher long “i” sound used in “ice,” “twice,” “ice” and “suffice.” Finally, the long “a” sound is repeated in “hate” and “great.” “The last, understated word in Frost’s poem, ‘suffice,’ clinches the meaning by rhyming with the two lines that end in ‘ice’ and enclosing that thematic word within itself” (Meyers 1). The use of this rhyme scheme is important because it emphasizes the words that are rhymed. In addition, the use of alternating end rhyme is similar to the rhyme scheme in nursery rhymes. This is important because it further adds to the effect of knowledge and experience.
Rhythm and Meter. The poem is written in iambic pentameter, but is varied several times to emphasize the meaning of the poem. The first change occurs in the second line when the pentameter is replaced by dimeter. This is effectively used to force the reader to contemplate the first two lines of the poem. Another breaking point in the poem occurs on the fifth line where the meter is changed to tetrameter. The poet switches back to dimeter in the last two lines of the poem, placing emphasis on both lines. This is important because it is used to show that desire and hate are both powerful forces and have the potential to end a relationship.
Although the meter is changed several times throughout the poem, the rhythm is unchanged. The regular beat that is created suggests a simple tone, similar to that of a nursery rhyme. The rhythm is only interrupted by the change of meter. The change in meter is used to place importance on certain parts of the poem. Because of the brief dimeter lines, an additional use may be to force the reader to look back and interpret the preceding lines.
Pattern. The poem consists of nine iambic pentameter lines with every other line being a couplet. The use of the couplets in combination with the change in meter places emphasis on the themes of passion/consumption, knowledge/experience and death/destruction. This short nine line poem is most comparable to that of a nursery rhyme. The simplicity that Frost writes the poem with supplies a simple truth about feelings in a relationship.
Is this poem suggesting that the end of the world will either be by fire or ice? Or through the use of poetic devices and interpretation, does Frost express his own opinions about the darker feelings felt in a relationship? Whether or not the reader accepts one of these views or an entirely different view, the use of imagery, denotations and connotations, figurative language, musical devices, rhythm and meter, and the structure of the poem undeniably supplement the total meaning of the poem.
Arp, Thomas R. Perrine’s Sound and Sense. 10th Edition. Forth Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1997.
Hansen, Tom. “Frost’s FIRE AND ICE.” 59: 27. EBSCO. Century College, White Bear Lake, MN. 18 Mar. 2008. Keyword: fire and ice and Robert Frost.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Robert Frost: a Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997. 18 Mar. 2008
Rosenfeld, Emmet. “HELP WORDS WAKE UP AND DANCE.” Sylvan Learning. 17 Mar. 2008
Serio, John R. “Frost’s Fire and Ice and Dante’s Inferno.” 57: 218. EBSCO. Century College, White Bear Lake, MN. 18 Mar. 2008. Keyword: fire and ice and Robert Frost.