Symbolism of the Poem 'Fire and Ice' by Robert Frost

Symbolism of the Poem 'Fire and Ice' by Robert Frost

In the poem 'Fire and Ice', Robert Frost uses a sarcastic tone to warn us about the dangers that planet Earth could face, if we do not keep our desires and negative emotions in control. Short, crisp, and to-the-point, he conveys a very profound message in just 9 lines. This article provides the Fire and Ice poem analysis, through its symbolism, theme, and a detailed line-by-line understanding of the text.
The poem 'Fire and Ice' was first published in Harper's Magazine in December 1920. It was later also included in the book New Hampshire in 1923, that went on to win the Pulitzer prize.

It is believed that Robert Frost was inspired to write this poem because of two reasons - a passage in Canto 32 of Dante's Inferno, and a conversation he had with a noted astronomer, Harlow Shapley.

Inferno, in Italian, means 'hell'. Inferno is a poem written by Dante describing his journey through hell.

Frost had once asked a question to Harlow Shapley about how the world would end. To this, the scientist replied that, either the Earth would be burnt because the Sun exploded, or, if the Earth would manage to escape this calamity, the opposite would happen - it would freeze up in the depths of the universe. The poem was published a year after this conversation took place.

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.

Structural Analysis

Rhyme Scheme: A-B-A, A-B-C, B-C-B
Meter: iambic tetrameter and dimeter
Pattern: terza rima

Symbolism and Theme
The poet is surmising the fate of the world - what would cause it to end. Being a poet, he likens the causes to the imperfections in human nature, and not just plain physics. He dwells on two causes that are believed to end the world - fire or ice. Here, fire is symbolic of human desire or passion, and ice is symbolic of hatred.

Humans have raided the planet in an attempt to satisfy their desires; we cut trees, pollute the air, water and land, just to get and experience the things we want. We do this without consideration what effect it will have on nature. Here, fire also symbolizes base passion, or so to say sexual desire. This desire, although responsible for continuation of life, if not controlled, can also lead to misery and self-destruction (remember AIDS). Ice symbolizes the hatred that arises out of rational thinking. Humans, in their bid to know things and gain power, become so impervious to love and kindness, that they end up fighting with each other. This has been evident in the wars that have been fought throughout human history.

Line-by-line Interpretation
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.


Here, the 'end of the world' could either mean doom or the Apocalypse, as stated in religious texts like the Bible. It could be a celestial happening, as stated by the astronomer mentioned earlier. It could also be a natural calamity happening on Earth itself; volcanoes, or forest fires, or the Ice Age.

It could also mean man-made destruction of the world because of man's greed or animosity, leading to global warming or nuclear war. It also points to the collapsing of the world around a person because of his mistakes, owing to similar reasons.

The poet has demarcated the reason of this destruction into two major schools of thought - one in favor of fire, and the other in favor of ice.

From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.


The poet knows what it means to have desires. From his knowledge and experience of this feeling, and the havoc it can cause to a person if done in excess, he agrees that desire can be a cause of destruction. Fire is used in reference to the animal tendencies in us. All these emotions are associated with hotness. Here, desire could mean ambitions, aspirations, gluttony, greed, lust, etc. We commit mistakes, or so to say, sins, in running after our desires. We do not see that it can harm other people, animals, plants or nature, if we blindly go after it. Excessive emphasis on desires is what keeps us from experiencing pure joy and bliss.

But if it had to perish twice,

Now what if the Earth somehow escaped the devastation caused by what he refers to as fire? What other would cause a wipe-out of life from planet Earth? Let us find out what he says next.

I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great


The poet has also experienced negative feelings like hatred himself, and also in people around him. He is owning up to having this feeling himself, so we can also say that he is being very honest with us. Hatred is taken to be an ice-cold emotion. It could also be that he has received this emotion from someone, and knows what wrong it can do. When you become selfish and think only about yourself, you don't care about anybody else.

Let us understand why he has associated hatred with ice, and also why destruction by ice is following destruction by fire. You have a fit of rage which is a hot feeling, then it keeps smoldering inside you, and finally you become impervious to love. You become indifferent, uncaring, and devoid of positive feelings. Thus, hatred destroys the very humanity in you. If love is lost, everything is lost, and this is a great recipe for an impending disaster.

And would suffice.

This line lingers in the mind and makes your hair stand on their ends. It frightens you, and makes you shudder to think that the very inadequacies and imperfections in human nature could boomerang on us and lead to our destruction.

This poem makes us think deeper about our negativity. It propels us towards introspection. What we can learn from it is that, we should strive to keep human values alive. We should keep our desires and hatred in check. Desires can be controlled by being satisfied and happy with what one has. Love for all living beings and nature can be an antidote for the venom of hatred.