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When I first read this poem, the first thing that I notice is general idea that whoever is speaking (in first person) is describing the end of the world. The first thing that comes to mind is the movie “Armageddon” and meteors burning up the earth, representing the fire. I can also see the planet covered with great glaciers with everything buried beneath sheets of ice. That is especially frightening to me as I live here in warm Hawaii. I can understand the literal meaning, that the person who is speaking says if the world were to end they would favor fire, but ice will also do. These are things I know to be true upon a first reading.
Another thing I looked at was the structure of this poem. It is arranged so that there is a rhyming scheme, which I believe was intentional by the author. The way the poem seems held together by the rhyming is aesthetically pleasing. One thing interesting that I saw was the scheme in lines 6 and 8 differ from the rest of the poem. The words that rhyme are “hate” and “great”, which is an ironic association to make between something considered bad and something which is by definition good. Another thing I noticed about the rhyming was that in the first 4 lines, the word ice (2) does not rhyme with fire and desire. This may have been to show an initial contrast between fire and ice.
Now that I have established what I know, I now ask myself some questions about what I do not know about this poem from an initial reading. How do fire, ice, desire, and hatred relate? Why is their relationship important? What is Frost trying to say in this poem? These are the main questions that I had.
To begin to deal with the first question, in line 3, the speaker says “From what I’ve tasted of desire” and then continues into line 4 with “I hold with those who favor fire” here the speaker makes a connection between fire and desire. I believe he is trying to use fire as a metaphor for desire. From personal experience, I know a desire can be all consuming and much like a wild fire raging out of control and destroying everything in its path. The speaker also appears to understand how destructive desire can be, and makes it his first choice for the end of the world.
Then the speaker speaks in the second half of the poem. There he states in line 7 of how ice “Is also great” for destruction based on their knowledge of hate. Here the speaker makes a connection similar to that used in first half, except here between ice and hatred. It should be noted that the author is performing the same process with two sets of opposite things, desire and fire, and hatred and ice. I can also relate to how cold hatred is. When I do things I really hate, it feels like time and the clock hands are frozen in time. Hate is also cold in the sense that when one truly hates something, they will do anything to cause harm or eliminate it, no matter what the consequences. Any heart can be frozen in hatred’s iron grip. So, the speaker states that hatred can also destroy the world.
I believe fire and ice, and desire and hatred were first brought up as opposites. When one thinks of fire, one thinks heat. When one is hot, they would like to drink something cool. When one thinks of ice they think of cold. When one is cold they want to sit by a fire and warm up. Desire is the want to have or create something while hatred is wanting to destroy it. I have answered my first question about how fire, ice, hatred and desire are associated. I can begin to see that my answer to the second question (what is the deeper message in this poem?) is getting closer.
Frost begins to confuse me with line 5, “But if it had to perish twice,” as nothing can die twice. This paradox leads me to believe that there is a larger paradox hidden in this poem. When the speaker talks of the destruction that will cause the end of the planet, they cite two opposite causes, fire and ice. This leads to the larger (and more important) paradox where the author is implying that ice and fire, and the speaker-associated emotions of desire and hate are really the same thing. Fire and ice are the same, as are desire and hatred.
While at first, this may seem impossible (as is the nature of paradoxes), I looked at the context of which the author speaks of fire and ice, and desire and hatred. When the person discusses fire and ice, and desire and hatred, they do it in the context of the end of the world. Both the fire and the ice, and desire and hate can ultimately end up destroying the world. The author is trying say that because both of these pairs of opposites can bring about destructive force, they are really the same. I have now answered all my questions, and can begin reflecting on the poem.
Something that I found interesting was Frost’s use of the word “suffice” in line 9. This is where Frost states that fire and ice (and their associated emotions) are equally dangerous. Yet there is an irony in this. When one thinks of fire, they see a bright, smoky, dramatic event. Whereas ice is just plain old ice. While the two are same, they are also inherently different. Fire goes through the flashy process of burning, where ice is just frozen. But they still result in the same thing. That is the irony.
I can make one main assumption about Frost’s values. He believes that anything in the extreme, such as hate or desire can be in very dangerous, potentially causing the end of the planet. I tend to agree, as governments bent on either hatred of others or the desire for power have, in our history caused great pain and suffering. One shining example of this is Adolf Hitler’s hatred of people who were different. This cold hatred lead to a great war and Holocaust in which many people suffered and died.
Though this poem was written over 70 years ago, it carries an eternal message and a paradox. Any emotion taken to the extreme is dangerous, and opposites become the same (destructive) at an extreme state. We must all be careful not to hate or desire something so much that it becomes an obsession, for a Holocaust lies in all of us.
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