FROST’S METAPHORICAL UNIVERSE:
FIRE AND ICE, DESIRE AND HATE
Art Madsen, M.Ed.
It would be far too naive to rush toward hasty and superficial analytical judgment of Robert Frost’s 1923 poem Fire and Ice. Without extensively researching this concise poetic creation, the reader can safely assume that entire theses and treatises have been dedicated to these nine complete, yet cursory lines. Indeed, there is certainly considerable justification for the critical attention that this poem has attracted over the intervening decades. The acknowledged genius of Frost’s lines lies in their euphonic beauty, intrinsic brevity, and innate balance, to be sure, but also in their apparently simplistic structure and yet universal significance.
There is far more in this poem than a well-rhymed thrust against the twin nemeses of mankind, desire and hate, constituting two of the operative concepts in these three cadenced sentences. In fact, the coupling of fire with desire and ice with hate adds symmetry, core content, and thematic depth to Frost’s nicely encapsulated poem. These elements, viewed in isolation, however, do not form the essence of Fire and Ice. Rather, it is the ensemble, the whole, that creates the mystically enchanting effect of the work. Why might there be such an enchanting effect in spite of the apparent high seriousness of the theme? One response to this enquiry might lie in the final line, so typical of Frost’s methodology of imparting acerbic wisdom, sheathed in veiled humor and in light-hearted counterpoint. The reader is, frankly, amused to learn that ice "would" suffice for the destruction of hatred, and by extension that desire "would" be annihilated through fire, if only any of this were true. Frost’s overriding recognition that only the entire world’s destruction, presumably by either of the means specified, seems the only way to definitively suppress human desire and hate is also humorous, in a bittersweet sense, because it is built on the old ‘fire and ice’ adage, predating Frost by centuries.
The poet’s astute handling of rhyme (A,B,A,A,B,C,B,C,B), versification and yet perfect sentence structure in the conventional conversational sense adds an acceptable New England earthiness to the lines, as does Frost’s manipulation of the original dual concept of fire or ice as the destructive forces involved. Only if the world had to be destroyed twice does Frost think ice would be effective in destroying hate, a subsidiary human behavioral trait that the poet arguably, and interestingly, relegates to second place, after desire. This is a unique manipulation of the pre-existent equality of both destructive methods, coupled metaphorically by Frost with two human behavioral emotions or traits.
This poem is so brief, and so predominantly monosyllabic, that the reader is tempted to think, in spite of the generally recognized genius of Frost, that he picked up a rhyming dictionary at the local Five and Dime, looked at the dancing flame of his 1923 New Hampshire kerosene lamp’s wick, and then at the icicles hanging from his eaves. While flipping through his dictionary, he pondered human nature but a moment, and penned these few lines, adding as an afterthought, the lovely "and would suffice." Under these circumstances, what profundity slipped into the lines might have been fortuitous, the reader may postulate. And yet, knowing the rest of Frost’s work, and assuming, somewhat speculatively, that he had read poets like Dylan Thomas (who had used a similar ‘summer and ice’ theme in I See the Boys of Summerand who was associated with Ezra Pound whom Frost definitely knew from his literary journey to the U.K.), it becomes apparent that more than an uninformed, chance stroke of luck was involved in creating Fire and Ice.
When examining more closely the structure of Frost’s exquisite juxta-positioning of desire and fire, in subordinated combination with hate and ice, the critic might lean heavily toward a real appreciation of this, at first glance, rather simple analogy (fire : desire as ice : hate), but actually far more complex metaphor for life, destruction, and innately human behavior. In fact, the whole theme of destruction is one that leaps before the eyes, once the light-hearted music of this poem has dissolved. This theme lends a darker air to the poem, creating a somber mood and exposing Frost’s often dim opinion of the human race and our chances for success and survival. World War I had left an imprint on his psyche, and did so not surprisingly, since it had been billed as The Great War, and (in retrospect) surpassed even WWII in human suffering and decimation. Frost was at Pinkerton Academy in Derry, New Hampshire and at Amherst College in Massachusetts prior to and during WWI, but was certainly aware of events beyond his immediate frame of reference. In any event, the somber overlay of this destructive theme is certainly very much in evidence. The combining of dark human emotions with equally dark world destruction compounds the all-pervasive feeling of angst and distress.
In other Frost poems, such as The Road Not Taken, a similar overlapping of thematic content (nature and human emotion, for example) occurs and often dominates the entire aura created by the poet. Doubtless, it was this same duality or twin thematic content, in addition to the mastery of versification and structure later seen in Fire and Ice, that attracted established European poets to Frost’s early work, and solidified Frost’s reputation on both sides of the Atlantic even prior to the poet’s initial publications.
Similar structural components, such as those present microcosmically in Fire and Ice, are found in lengthier poems among much of Frost’s work. By judicious and creative use of metaphorical images and his uniquely ‘imparted wisdom’ in final lines, Frost has compressed into what for most of us would be mere words and phrases, not only beautiful, but deeply significant, and even poignant truths. That millions of admirers, worldwide, felt this to be the case is testimony enough to the universality of his pronouncements and the charming delicacy of his verses. Fire and Ice is certainly worthy of admiration in this sense.
DiYonni and Rompf (1993), p. 736, l. 24.
This four-stanza poem, comprised of twenty lines, is arguably Robert Frost’s most famous work. It overshadows in popularity and perennial recognition almost the entire body of his creative endeavors. Although Frost, who passed away in fairly recent years, is categorized as a contemporary American poet, he is easily considered by many literati to have been among America’s greatest poetic minds. So, this poem stands out as an exceptional piece of work by any standards.
The Road Not Taken addresses deep philosophical issues in life. It acknowledges that we cannot do two things at once, that we must make choices, and that the same choices once available are not likely to ever recur again. Frost raises this truth to universal heights and then powerfully implies that unusual choices made in life are those that are always the most decisive in the sequence of events that affect us.
In the poem’s first stanza, Frost evokes a forest in autumn where two paths are available to the narrator-walker, speaking in the first person. The walker wants to travel both, but can’t, and must make an existential choice. He looks down one, then, in the second stanza, chooses the other, although both paths seem roughly equally unworn to him. In the third stanza he repeats the notion of undisturbed, un-blackened, leaves on these paths, and states that he hopes to return to the first un-chosen path on another day. But, expressing in the last two lines the idea that events usually prevent people from having the same choices to make, he reluctantly realizes that he may never have a chance to choose the first path again.
In the final stanza, Frost heightens the purpose and universality of this theme by extending his tale over "ages and ages." He also adds a new thought in the final lines by emphasizing that the walker took the path "less traveled by" and that his choice in selecting that path has made a significant difference in his life, and by extension in all of our lives.
It is fascinating that the walker, at one point in the poem (lines 10-13), finds both paths almost equally unused, and that, at the poem’s end, Frost states that the walker had chosen the one "less traveled by". We can infer that determining which paths are the distinctive ones that will make a difference in our lives is sometimes quite difficult.
An Interpretive Analysis of "The Mother" by Gwendolyn Brooks
Art Madsen, M.Ed.
This is a plaintiff and guilt-ridden poem of a woman who could have been a mother, but never was. The poignancy of her poetic creation, focused on abortion, is further enhanced if we realize that Brooks was only 28 years old when she committed her feelings to paper.
In her opening stanza, Brooks evokes the tactile sensations of motherhood and offsets them with the recognition that she has never experienced the full joy of maternity. The reader notes subliminally that the poet employs the plural, as if more than one child had been lost in this manner. Either Brooks is recording the actual losses of several unborn children experienced by one mother, plausibly herself, or she is broadening the concept, using the ambivalent "you", to signify the children of all mothers lost through abortion.
However, in the second stanza, Brooks abandons the second person, "you", and the reader learns that the writer, "I", had personally sustained the emptiness of these multiple losses. Indeed, although her birth ritual was devoid of offspring, her mind projects children that never were.
Guilt emerges in this stanza, notably with phrases such as "I stole your births and your names." And yet Brooks, or the narrator, feels ambivalence toward her decision to abort. She states that her decision was not "deliberate", and then retracts this feeling in the subsequent line. She seems to be bargaining with herself, attempting to clear her conscience, and yet ultimately confronts the terrible moral burden of knowing she extinguished a life or lives.
Desperate, now, in her recognition of the horror of this (perhaps involuntary) decision to abort, she reasserts, in the poem’s final lines, an unbalanced couplet, her love for these children that truly never existed.
With all that has been written and broadcast about abortion in the final decades of the 20th Century, and now in the 21st, Brooks’ poem rings just a little hollow to me. While sensitive, poignant and emotional, the poet’s relative superficiality stands out in contrast to so much more that has been competently voiced on this subject.
The Passionate Shepherd to His Love by Christopher Marlowe
Art Madsen, M.Ed.
Marlowe’s delightful love poem is composed of six quatrains featuring a rhyme scheme of AABB, with each line consisting of eight syllables. Sometimes, of course, the syllables must be counted in the old style, as in the two-syllable word "wingèd."
The first stanza introduces the shepherd’s undisguised purpose. He wants the girl of his dreams to come live with him. He addresses her in the ‘second person imperative’, a direct invitation. He evokes the depth of his passion by telling her that, together, they will experience all of the pleasures that nature (hills, fields, and valleys) can offer.
He then shifts to a first-person-plural descriptive mode: "We will sit upon the rocks…" in the second stanza. The girl and he will watch other shepherds feed their animals, as they sit by rivers with waterfalls. Birds nearby will be singing melodies in honor of these waterfalls. This is a typical bucolic scene found frequently in poetry of Marlowe’s era.
The love-struck shepherd then offers her, in the third stanza, beds of roses and thousands of flowers, in fact a cap and skirt of flowers interwoven with myrtle, an especially fragrant leafy plant. He offers all this to her in exchange for her love.
He elaborates, in the fourth stanza, on the type of gown it will be, saying that they will pull wool from their lambs to make it. Slippers, for her, lined against the cold, will have golden buckles. There seems no end to the gifts for this pretty maiden whom the shepherd desires as his "love."
Again, in the fifth stanza, the penultimate, there will be a belt of straw for her with buds from an ivy plant, studded with amber and clasped with coral. He reverts to the old second-person-familiar, calling her "thee", saying that if she is pleased by these wonderful pleasures he can offer her, then she should come and live with him and be his love.
In the last intense stanza, he evokes the image of dancing each May morning in her honor and closes with an entreaty: If these lovely delights persuade your mind, "then live with me and be my love." This is the third time that he has used this direct approach, asking her to share her life with him. We don’t know what she says in reply, but Marlowe certainly evokes a beautiful pastoral theme when he has his passionate shepherd court this maiden.
[We learn that she probably rejected the shepherd in Sir Walter Raleigh’s poem (p. 157), actually quite humorous in places, because she reminds the shepherd in Raleigh’s poem that all these flowers will fade, old-age will overtake them, and they will ultimately be unhappy together. Raleigh, a man of course, was having fun with Marlowe’s overly passionate love poem.]