Fire and Ice


Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
 From what I’ve tasted of desire
… I hold with those who favor fire.
 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.

… … …  . … … ... … . Robert Frost

7 responses to “Fire and Ice

  1. With Hailstone, I’ve tried to use ice for construction. Ice for destruction? A truly chilling thought. The cadence of the words is fine… and there was I thinking my own line (in the posting below) ‘Not to put it out’ was musical! Wonderful photo: taken in Ohara?

  2. The most sufficient thing about the poem is its last word. Yes, hate will do.

    Typical of RF to “hold with” a phrase that had its day in the 17th century. Google Ngram:

    This poem was collected first in RF’s 1923 volume, “New Hampshire” (his first to win the Pulitzer; he’d win three more later). That was the year after Eliot published his Waste Land, and yet see how lightly, by comparison, RF lays waste to the world in prospect here (two times over, no less). It is a happily grim business. RF never caught himself writing w/ an air of portent, no matter what he was portending.

    Among the last words RF ever said in public? “It’s a wonderful world. . . . To hell with it.” That left some in his audience––Boston, 12/2/1962, not long after the Cuban Missile Crisis had been resolved––in mild amaze. The next day RF entered Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston, where he died on 1/29/1963.

    Note that Fire and Ice is the sort of heterometric affair RF liked to praise in other, older writers (17th century poets chiefly).

    RF also held that sentences ought never be laid into lines the same way. Here we get three: 2-line, 2-line, 5-line.

    The two main conjunctive rhymes (affiliating words not in sound only, but conceptually also) are vert Frosty: fire/desire, hate/great.

    “Fire and Ice” appears amongst a brilliant cluster of poems, beginning w/ I Will Sing You One-O (a strange poem, almost never discussed), and running on through Fragmentary Blue, In a Disused Graveyard, Dust of Snow, To E.T. (elegy for Edward Thomas), Nothing Gold Can Stay (a 花見-ish elegy for the fall of everything), to Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening, to For Once, Then, Something, and on to The Onset, To Earthward, and Good-by And Keep Cold (to name the high points).

    “New Hampshire” was, when first published in 1923, subtitled “A Poem With Notes and Grace-notes.” (The “poem” referred to here is the long title-poem of the book.) “Fire and Ice,” wouldn’t you know it, is one of the grace-notes.

    For the nonce, I drop in here the poem that follows Fire and Ice (hear RF’s rhyming, how variable it is: every quatrain differs):

    “In a Disused Graveyard”

    The living come with grassy tread
    To read the gravestones on the hill;
    The graveyard draws the living still,
    But never anymore the dead.

    The verses in it say and say:
    “The ones who living come today
    To read the stones and go away
    Tomorrow dead will come to stay.”

    So sure of death the marbles rhyme,
    Yet can’t help marking all the time
    How no one dead will seem to come.
    What is it men are shrinking from?

    It would be easy to be clever
    And tell the stones: Men hate to die
    And have stopped dying now forever.
    I think they would believe the lie.

    Next in sequence is this (haiku-like?) grace-note, carried off in a single sentence over eight short lines:

    “Dust of Snow”

    The way a crow
    Shook down on me
    The dust of snow
    From a hemlock tree

    Has given my heart
    A change of mood
    And saved some part
    Of a day I had rued.

    A crow, a hemlock, and rue: “Roote of Hemlocke, digg’d i’ th’ darke,” says one of the witches at the start of Macbeth. And yet RF had been saved for at least “some part of a day.”

    Next in sequence comes his elegy for Edward Thomas (the only brother he ever had, as RF once said). Thomas had been killed on 4/9/1917 in the Great War.

    “To E. T.”

    I slumbered with your poems on my breast
    Spread open as I dropped them half-read through
    Like dove wings on a figure on a tomb
    To see, if in a dream they brought of you,

    I might not have the chance I missed in life
    Through some delay, and call you to your face
    First soldier, and then poet, and then both,
    Who died a soldier-poet of your race.

    I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain
    Unsaid between us, brother, and this remained—
    And one thing more that was not then to say:
    The Victory for what it lost and gained.

    You went to meet the shell’s embrace of fire
    On Vimy Ridge; and when you fell that day
    The war seemed over more for you than me,
    But now for me than you—the other way.

    How over, though, for even me who knew
    The foe thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine,
    If I was not to speak of it to you
    And see you pleased once more with words of mine?

    And then we get the poem I spoke of earlier in connection with 花見, the one about the fall of everything, “Nothing Gold Can Stay”:

    Nature’s first green is gold,
    Her hardest hue to hold.
    Her early leaf’s a flower;
    But only so an hour.
    Then leaf subsides to leaf,
    So Eden sank to grief,
    So dawn goes down to day
    Nothing gold can stay.

    Only one saliently Latinate word in the poem, “subsides”: “classical Latin subsīdere to squat or crouch down, to sit down, to lie in wait, to settle down, stay put, to fall to the ground, to fall to the bottom (in a liquid or other medium), to sink (below a surface), to sink to a lower level, to slope downwards, fall away” (OED).

    All this simply to suggest how thoughtfully RF arrayed the poems that went into his books. You see how they all talk to one another, these grace-notes.

    • ‘Dust of Snow’, which you quote, Mark, a veritable ‘haiku moment’ … although drawn out. That and ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’, in feel almost as Anglo-Saxon as ‘Beowulf’. I love the punch of the short English words, also so useful in haiku. Thanks for the mini-lecture, full of your specialist erudition.

  3. Thanks, Stephen. Apt comments. RF had nearly perfect diction, at his height.

    I realise you and everyone else here might like to see the poem that concludes “New Hampshire.” For the phrase “country things” see also Hamlet’s remark to Ophelia, which RF almost certainly has in mind.

    “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things”

    The house had gone to bring again
    To the midnight sky a sunset glow.
    Now the chimney was all of the house that stood,
    Like a pistil after the petals go.

    The barn opposed across the way,
    That would have joined the house in flame
    Had it been the will of the wind, was left
    To bear forsaken the place’s name.

    No more it opened with all one end
    For teams that came by the stony road
    To drum on the floor with scurrying hoofs
    And brush the mow with the summer load.

    The birds that came to it through the air
    At broken windows flew out and in,
    Their murmur more like the sigh we sigh
    From too much dwelling on what has been.

    Yet for them the lilac renewed its leaf,
    And the aged elm, though touched with fire;
    And the dry pump flung up an awkward arm:
    And the fence post carried a strand of wire.

    For them there was really nothing sad.
    But though they rejoiced in the nest they kept,
    One had to be versed in country things
    Not to believe the phoebes wept.