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.
Thus wrote Robert Frost in his beautifully succinct poem, Fire and Ice, first published in 1920 – his style so crisp, so measured, and elegant. And yet, even though not one syllable is either wasted or superfluous, it is equally true that not a single word is lacking. Frost is able to convey in a mere fifty-one words, something of the complexity of humanity and our impact upon the earth. When an origin story for this poem is offered, one of two is generally put forward. The first comes from an anecdote made by Professor Harlow Shapley in a 1960 address, ‘Science and Arts’, in which he relates how, at a Harvard faculty party in either 1918 or 1919, Frost approached him and explicitly asked for Shapley’s scientific opinion on how the world would end. To which Shapley answered, that it would either end in a fiery conflagration, or through a global ice-age. Although if either one of these men had been to Australia, then they would have known that sometimes both scenarios happen simultaneously – as has happened literally on this very day in NSW with unseasonal snows in the south and raging bushfires on the central coast.
However, rather than just reading this poem as an allegorical apocalypse, many readers have seen the personal, emotional layer of this poem to be the most compelling. Indeed, George R.R. Martin found the inspiration for the series’ title of his own – much weightier tomes – within this aspect of the poem. And it is quite clear to see how these dual threads of passion and revenge are woven into Martin’s fantasy world, working equally to drag most of the protagonists to their doom, alongside the more literal elements of fire embodied by the dragons, and the Lord of Light, while ice is the preserve of the White Walkers and the wights.
Yet Fire and Ice surely contains more within its lines than simply a reflection on some great personal experience or tragedy – even though Frost himself certainly was dealt more than his fair share of that even before 1920, with his parents dying when he was young, two of his six children dying when just four years old and a few days old, as well as having a history of mental illness in the family, including having to commit his younger sister in the same year as this poem was first published. It is more than that, for this poem seems to me, to hint at an experience more than purely personal, and I would argue that this poem is another of his reflections upon the Great War. A War which began with an almost incendiary passion – on the part of both those whose actions precipitated the war, as well as the hundreds of thousands of young men who voluntarily enlisted from all over the world; but which, as the years dragged on, consumed millions of people through the coldly clinical machine of trench warfare. Indeed, Frost himself had lived in England from 1912 to 1915, and would have seen first-hand the glorious passion that marked the initial period of the War, and then later, when he was back in America, the endless monotony of its human wastage.
However, this is really only one half of the story, for an author’s style and inspiration comes not just from their experiences, but equally, or even more so, from all of those works which have had an impact upon them over the years; which remain swirling about in their minds. And it is in from within the works known to Frost – whether consciously or unconsciously – that the second most common origin story for Fire and Ice is told.
Among the most well-known recent literary analyses of this poem, John N. Serio’s interpretation of Fire and Ice sees argues for a conscious echoing and imitation of the description of hell in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno. In Serio’s analysis, not only does the description of the icy lake at the bottom of the ninth layer of hell mimic the progression of Fire and Ice through the flames
first and the terrible cold last, but also that those consigned to this deepest layer of hell, those who are the worst of all – the traitors, oathbreakers and betrayers – are somehow referenced by Frost in how the world is supposedly to be destroyed. Additionally, it is not just in the content, but in its very structure that Serio argues the poem mimics Dante’s much longer work: where Dante’s Inferno has nine levels of hell, Frost’s poem has nine lines; the very shape of these nine lines narrows throughout the poem, as do the nine layers of hell; and the poem’s ABA / ABC / BCB rhyming structure echoing the terza rima metre of the Inferno.
While his analysis is very clever, I think that Serio’s argument is prone to over-extrapolation from the texts at hand, and, quite frankly, entirely misses the point on a number of levels. On just the structural evidence, simply that Frost chose to use nine lines for his poem does not necessarily need to be a reference to Hell, for the number nine is held to be special by a number of cultures; and all for very different reasons.
Frost, as a man who had dallied with university study and later taught for over thirty years at some of the most highly regarded universities, may have known and chosen to reference any one of these symbolic meanings – or (more likely in my opinion) chosen none of them at all. And while in other poems, Frost does use the terza rima metre (ABA / BCB / CDC / DED / etc) most effectively – Fire and Ice just does not scan in quite the same, neat way. Yet the most jarring to my mind is the question of why Serio only puts forward the Inferno as the single source which Frost is consciously recalling. For instance, he does not offer any others poems of Frost’s as being inspired by either the Purgatorio or Paradiso to form a set; a major flaw in my view, for the three medieval epics cannot be considered as separate to one another, and if you are inspired by one of the three, then why not all? Nor does he look for any other analogues outside of either Dante or Frost, and it is hard to see how any text can viewed with such isolation.
I had been looking forward to discussing the development of a cold Hell vs a hot Hell in medieval eschatology; where the Inferno is simply the end point of a thousand years of classical and Christian synthesis. From the pagan Hades and the Jewish gehenna, via the ubiquitous (though gnostic) Visio St. Pauli, possibly commingled with some Germanic mythology, and finally including the philosophical works of the thirteenth century St. Thomas of Aquinas – Dante’s Inferno is far from being an original work, masterful though it is. But, I have had to put all of this aside, because the closer I looked at Fire and Ice, the harder it was to find any trace of Hell at all. All that Frost refers to is simply the destruction of the world as we know it; but not to any ultimate hellish abode. I would not even say that he is describing any sort of ‘Hell on Earth’ scenario, because punishment – integral to the Judaeo-Christian concept of Hell – is quite lacking in Fire and Ice. Indeed, I find it hard to believe that a man who had probably grown up with the idiom of ‘a cold day in hell’ or ‘when hell freezes over’ to mean some impossible action, would suddenly break with type and ex nihilo craft such a conscious reflection on a deeply Catholic, alien text. Therefore, if my argument is correct, then there really is not much basis at all to a connection between Fire and Ice and the Inferno.
You may well ask at this point (somewhat tongue-in-cheek): ‘what has the medieval to do with Robert Frost’? His other poems do not seem to contain any strong references or allusions to other medieval texts; indeed, he was famous in his own lifetime for the sense of modernity within his poetry, of his colloquialisms, and plain speech. So how does this connect with the medieval?
Well, firstly, as the nineteenth century saw the beginning of the disciplines of archaeology and linguistics (alongside other new sciences like geology), there was also a flourishing of translations from many medieval languages into the main modern European languages. You could say that just as the Renaissance was a rebirth of the Classical, then so too was nineteenth century a rebirth of the Medieval – even the word ‘medieval’ itself was first recorded in the nineteenth century. Within popular culture, not only art and architecture, but especially literature (for both adults and children) the influence of medievalism was great. Just a few of the extremely popular and influential English and American nineteenth century works set in the medieval period include Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1820), Lord Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1859-1885), Charles Kingsley’s Hereward the Wake: Last of the English (1866), Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Reknown in Nottinghamshire (1883) and King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (1903), as well as Mark Twain’s satire A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). A heavily romanticised and sanitised idea of the early medieval, but nonetheless, one that was incredibly popular. I think that we can very comfortably set Frost himself (remembering that he was born in 1874) against this background of medievalism within America and England in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
While at first glance this could easily be used to argue further for the Inferno as one of the many popular medieval texts revived in this period which had a key influence upon Frost and Fire and Ice, what is important to note here for the (largely monoglot) English-speaking world, is that it was not just a general idea of the medieval past that was so influential on the period, but specifically their Germanic past, with all of the attendant problems of racial superiority that entailed. This stereotype of ‘staunch, stoic, and shining examples of Teutonic virtue’, remain issue that has never gone away. Scholarship has spent much of the last few decades redressing these problems (or at least tried to), but this has not yet permeated far enough into popular culture, which often still clings to a flawed medievalist ideology – sometimes dangerously so.
This attitude of the British with respect to their own early medieval past is quite well-known, but less commented upon, is a very similar sensibility found on the other side of the Atlantic. Jessica L. Walker’s recent PhD thesis on the great influence of Anglo-Saxon medievalism on Thomas Jefferson, and through him the very foundation of the American state – its identity; its sense of nationalism and patriotism (despite the definition of these two words having become highly charged in just the last week); the idea that those of Anglo-Saxon descent were the natural inheritors and propagators of democracy; as well as its ability to suppress any other form of identity within itself – is a thoroughly important study, and one which I think sets the tone for the medievalism of Frost: modern, democratic and anti-authoritarian, and somehow still essentially American. The second part of connecting Frost with the type of popular, nationalistic medievalism of his time must come from evidence
found within his poetry, and on that front I would like to suggest that it is in the Old English poetic corpus that we should be looking to for comparisons. For instance, if we look at Frost’s famous poem, The Gift Outright, we can see in it a similar attitude to that which Walker finds in Thomas Jefferson’s Anglo-Saxon medievalism (in reference to the many inhabitants of the British Isles who existed before, during, and after the Anglo-Saxon migration and invasions). That is – the American people apparently have an inherent, integral relationship with the land of America itself, but one which either discounts or even denies the existence or validity of other people in this landscape, for, as Frost writes, those parts of America unsettled by the colonists were “still unstoried, artless, unenhanced“. In The Gift Outright the American people attained their right of ownership, their ‘deed to the land’ through fulfilling their own destiny, with the acts of dispossession only alluded to parenthetically. Another example of similarities to Old English poetry may be found in the Directive, which poem Thomas Dilworth describes as a riddle or an enigma. Dilworth looks to eastern transcendental religions and Christian exegesis as the origin, or inspiration, of this poem. But if we look instead to Old English poetry, then I think that we may find something closer to the spirit of Frost’s poetry, if not also perhaps some more specific parallels. However, before that, I will make just one last (promise!) digression.
The early editors of Old English poetic material, especially of the riddles, chose to censor the ‘lewd’ or ‘bawdy’ elements. Whether acting consciously or not, their choices in skimming over portions of texts which did not fit with the idealised view of the Anglo-Saxons as a noble, upright, and morally superior people (a view which is a more mirror of their view of their own society rather than a true window into the past, or even, come to that, a true view of their own present) really did not do us any favours. It changed how not just academics within the field engaged with their material, but more importantly, it changed how members of the public who did not have access to the original text viewed the Anglo-Saxons. Any Old English texts that Frost would have potentially read himself – and many such texts would have been available to him through not just his academic circles, but were available to the public in general – would necessarily have been these sanitised collections that presented the poetic corpus of the Anglo-Saxons as the product of a people who were far more serious and (dare I say it) pretentious than they would have been in reality. It must be noted that this sanitised view of the past was of course not confined to the Anglo-Saxons – pretty much every early medieval and ancient culture has been a victim to the bias of the early editors who elevated certain aspects of these cultures, while suppressing others that were more transgressive or ‘other’ – such as body decoration (tattooing, piercing, and other modifications), non-heteronormative sexualities, and other practices which were absolutely a part of early medieval European culture.
It is nineteenth and twentieth century Christendom (for want of a better term) and especially Protestant, English-speaking Christendom, that was more comfortable with war rather than sex, with conformity rather than individuality – hang-ups that are still the norm in many parts of society today and influence so many aspects of our lives, and indeed censor so much creative output in literature, films, games, etc.
This is why I think that we should look at Fire and Ice in light of this early twentieth century medievalism – especially one which reverenced the Anglo-Saxons above other cultures. I do not claim to have found all (or even the best) parallels that might exist, but to my ears, two of the most well-known Old English poems, The Wanderer and The Seafarer, contain similarities of mood and expression to Fire and Ice.
Oppressed by chills were my feet,
bound up by frost, with cold chains,
where these sorrows sighed
hot about the heart — hunger tearing within
the sea-wearied mind. He does not know this fact
who dwells most merrily on dry land—
how I, wretchedly sorrowful, lived a winter
on the ice-cold sea, upon the tracks of exile,
deprived of friendly kinsmen,
hung with rimy icicles.
The Seafarer, l.9-17
Therefore a man cannot become wise,
before he has earned his share of winters in this world.
A wise man ought to be patient,
nor too hot-hearted, nor too hasty of speech …
A stout-hearted warrior ought to wait,
when he makes a boast, until he readily knows
where the thoughts of his heart will veer.
A wise man ought to perceive how ghostly it will be
when all this world’s wealth stands wasted,
so now in various places throughout this middle-earth,
the walls stand, blown by the wind,
crushed by frost, the buildings snow-swept.
The Wanderer, l.64-77
As with Fire and Ice, both of these poems can be described as the inner contemplations of someone who has experienced great joy and passion in the past, but whose world as such had come to an end for reasons not fully explained, but likely connected with the expression of these prior hot emotions. The narrator’s current existence is almost like a living purgatory within a physical landscape of intense cold; purgatory, since it too will come to an end even as it has to be lived through and endured. It thus neatly provides a comparison to the dual modes of ending the world as we know it in Fire and Ice.
The past is central to all three poems – it creates the conditions of the present; and this present is almost outside of the constraints of time, both a moment and never-ending in which to contemplate, but not able to alter how the future will turn out. It may be that I’m reading too much into the compact gem that is Fire and Ice, and perhaps others will have better suggestions that these two poems I’ve offered.
Finally, I would like to finish this reflection with a little bit of etymology. The noun frost itself has (almost identical) cognates in all of the modern and medieval languages, and it is related to the strong verb freeze. Both are derived from the Proto-Germanic (PG) *freusan, ‘freeze’, itself derived from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *preus-, which means both ‘freeze and ‘burn’. But this Janus word is not so odd when you consider what the process of freezing does to living tissue: when the external temperature falls below the freezing point of water, individual water molecules form ice crystals; water is then transformed into ice; it expands, and these larger ice crystals break through the confines of cell walls, killing off those cells; this is why those dead cells will quickly appear to be blackened. This is the type of frost that
will damage crops, and cause frostbite in animals and humans. We can also compare the modern coinage ‘freezer burn’ used to describe the blackened portions of meat or vegetables that have been improperly frozen. The appearance in all cases in very similar to that of flesh or vegetable matter which has been burnt by fire, and apparently the sensations can also be somewhat similar. Incidentally, very similar symptoms to first and second degree frostbite are found with chillblains, even though the causes of the latter are not necessarily directly due to sub-zero temperatures, and the word is a compound of chill (from PG *kalan, ‘to be cold’ ← PIE *gel(ǝ)-, ‘cold, freeze, congeal’) and –blain (from OE blegen, ‘sore, blister, pustule’ ← PG *blajinon, ‘swelling’ ← PIE *bhel-, ‘to blow, swell’), which together rather neatly describes the affliction. Importantly, the degrees, symptoms and severity of frostbite can equally be applied to burns caused by heat, hence the dual meaning of the PIE auto-antonym *preus-.
Thus the two main destructive elements of Fire and Ice are not just serendipitously contained within Frost’s own name, making it (for myself at least) a perfectly thematically rounded work, but both ultimately have the same result upon living things, with the one real difference being that fire destroys living things much faster than ice. It is still destruction nonetheless, and, as Frost himself writes, either would suffice.