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19 pages 38 minutes read

Robert Frost

Fire and Ice

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1920

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Since its first publication in December 1920 in Harper’s Magazine and in 1923 in Frost’s prize-winning collection New Hampshire, Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice” has opened many conversations about the apocalypse. The poem’s bleak apocalyptic themes also blend with philosophies about human beings’ infallible talent for self-destruction. The poem likens the elemental force of fire with desire and the force of ice with hate. Scholars cite the poem’s inspiration as Canto 32 of Dante’s Inferno, and they observe that the poem marked a distinct shift in Frost’s style, tone, form, and manner. In 1960, prominent astronomer Harlow Shapley claimed to have inspired “Fire and Ice,” saying that Frost had asked Shipley how the world would end. Shapley responded by saying that either the sun would explode, incinerating Earth, or the Earth would escape the incineration and slowly freeze in deep space. The poem is often marveled at for its compactness, and it is considered one of Frost’s best-known and most anthologized poems.

Poet Biography

Born in San Francisco, Robert Frost (1874-1963) was the son of journalist William Prescott Frost, Jr. and Isabelle Moodie. His later works focused on rural life. However, Frost grew up in the city, and because of his father’s influence, became a lifelong Democrat. He attended Dartmouth College. Later, Frost returned home to become a teacher. He worked a series of odd jobs, including delivering newspapers and maintaining carbon arc lamps in a factory.

Frost sold his first poem, “My Butterfly. An Elegy” in 1894. In 1895, he married Elinor Miriam White; the couple eventually lived on the farm Frost’s grandfather purchased for them prior to his death. Frost attended Harvard University but left due to illness. For nine years, Frost unsuccessfully worked the farm on which he and Elinor lived, leading Frost to take a teaching position at Pinkerton Academy (1906-11). Later, he taught at the New Hampshire Normal School. In 1912, Frost sailed with his family to Great Britain and in 1913, he published his first full collection of poems, A Boy’s Will. In England, he met poets Ezra Pound, T. E. Hulme, and Edward Thomas. In 1915, Frost returned to America, bought a farm in Franconia, New Hampshire, and launched his writing career.

In 1924, for the book New Hampshire: A Poem with Notes and Grace Notes, Frost won his first Pulitzer Prize. New Hampshire contained “Fire and Ice,” which would eventually become one of Frost’s best-known poems. In 1931, he won his second Pulitzer for Collected Poems; in 1937, he won the Pulitzer for a third time for A Further Range; and in 1943, he won for the fourth time for A Witness Tree. For 41 years, Frost taught every summer and fall at Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. In 1960, Frost received the Congressional Gold Medal, and at age 86, he read at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, becoming the first inaugural poet. Frost was also recognized as an international diplomat. He accompanied Interior Secretary Stewart Udall to the Soviet Union to meet with Nikita Khrushchev and other Soviet officials in order to lobby for peaceful, progressive US-Soviet Union negotiations.

Frost died in 1963 due to prostate surgery complications.

Poem Text

Frost, Robert. “Fire and Ice.” 2021. Poetry Foundation.

Summary

“Fire and Ice” details an apocalyptic scenario revolves around the theme that human emotions breed destruction. Despite its light, conversational tone, the poem embodies bleakness. The speaker brings the reader into an argument between people who think the world will come to a fiery end and people who believe it will freeze. The speaker then provides a philosophical insight: “From what I’ve tasted of desire / I hold with those who favor fire” (Lines 3-4). “Desire” can mean “greed,” and the speaker implies that greed and jealousy will be what brings the world to an end. The speaker then poses a converse to their original argument, stating, “But if it had to perish twice, / I think I know enough of hate” (Lines 5-6). The poem shifts as the speaker introduces the concept of hate, reminding their audience that hatred, too, is destructive, often in ways that people cannot see or comprehend: “To say that for destruction ice / Is also great” (Lines 7-8). At the poem’s ending, the speaker reflects by saying, “And would suffice” (Line 9), a statement that not only concludes the poem but also creates the sense that such an end would be appropriate.

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