Tom Hansen: On "Fire and Ice"
Harlow Shapley claimed that he inspired Robert Frost to write "Fire and Ice." Shapley, who taught at Harvard for many years, was perhaps the preeminent American astronomer of his time. Although his name was hardly a household word, it was known and respected among the academic scientific community. In an address he gave in 1960, "Science and the Arts," Dr. Shapley told an anecdote about his encounter with Frost a year or two before "Fire and Ice" was published in 1920. Although there is no reason to doubt his account of that encounter, the poem Frost wrote as a result does not say what Shapley thinks it says.
According to Dr. Shapley, he and Frost met at an annual faculty get-together during one of Frost's stints as poet-in-residence at Harvard. Frost sought Shapley out, tugged at his sleeve--figuratively, if not literally--and said something like, "Now, Professor Shapley. You know all about astronomy. Tell me, how is the world going to end?"  Taken aback by this unconventional approach, Shapley assumed Frost was joking. The two of them chatted for a few moments, but not about the end of the world. Then they each became involved in conversations with other people and were soon in different parts of the room. But a while later, Frost sought out Shapley again and asked him the same question. "So," said Shapley to his audience in 1960, "I told him that either the earth would be incinerated, or a permanent ice age would gradually annihilate all life on earth." Shapley went on to explain, as he had earlier explained to Frost, why life on earth would eventually be destroyed by fire or ice.
"Imagine my surprise," Shapley said, "when just a year or two later, I ran across this poem." He then read "Fire and Ice" aloud. He saw "Some say" as a reference to himself--specifically to his meeting with Frost at that gathering of Harvard faculty. "This personal anecdote," Shapley concluded, "illustrates one of the many ways in which scientific knowledge can influence the creation of a work of art and also elucidate the meaning of that work of art."
Frost also spent several years as poet-in-residence at the University of Michigan. A recent article by Sally Pobojewski in LSAmagazine, a publication of the university, shows that Shapley's misreading of "Fire and Ice" persists today, at least among some of the scientific members of the academic community. After quoting the poem's first two lines, the article begins, "For a poet, Robert Frost was a pretty good scientist, say astrophysicists Fred Adams and Greg Laughlin. Frost's fire-or-ice scenario neatly sums up two outcomes from their new study of possible future encounters between our solar system and passing stars" (28).
Like Shapley, Pobojewski fails to see that Frost's apparent directness and simplicity frequently mask, as Cleanth Brooks illustrates in Modern Poetry and the Tradition, his reliance on symbol (113, 114, 117). Though Brooks does not specifically mention "Fire and Ice," it is clearly a poem that must be interpreted symbolically. This is not a matter of preference. The poem unequivocally declares that it is not an astronomical speculation about a catastrophe millions of years in the future.
In several of his poems, Frost presents the outer as emblem or echo or distorted mirror image of the inner. The speaker of "Tree at My Window" notes, as he addresses the tree, that the two of them are dreamers--the tree so often "taken and tossed" and he himself so often "taken and swept / And all but lost" (9, 11-12). The poem concludes,
That day she put our heads together, Fate had her imagination about her, Your head so much concerned with outer, Mine with inner, weather.
A similar outer-physical/inner-psychological correspondence is in the concluding quatrain of "Desert Places":
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces Between stars--on stars where no human race is. I have it in me so much nearer home To scare myself with my own desert places.
The colloquial "scare" thinly masks the terror of this poem--not the terror that ripples through us when we vividly realize and almost physically apprehend the limitless emptiness of outer space, but the even greater tenor that washes over us when we realize that the ultimate desert places lie within us.
So it is with "Fire and Ice." Outer blatantly symbolizes inner. Fire is directly equated with desire, the kind that kindles antagonism and conflict. Ice is equated with hate. Fire and ice are born in the dark reaches of inner space, in the smoldering, ice-sheathed human heart. However, if the height of art is to conceal the art, then Frost is a consummate artist, because the terror in the poem is so casually understated that it slips by some readers undetected. The understatement is most evident in the fifth and last lines of the poem. "But if it had to perish twice," Frost says, as if the incineration of the world were little more than a passing sickness. "And would suffice," he concludes in a typically unemphatic last line. The use of first-person pronouns in lines 3, 4, and 6 also quietly contributes to the understatement, suggesting that the poem is only an expression of lightly held personal opinion. This deceptive strategy of understatement leads Shapley and Pobojewski to interpret the poem as idle cosm ic speculation rather than an astute diagnosis of the chronic malfunction of the human heart.
(1.) Although I was part of the audience listening to Shapley's address forty years ago, I imperfectly recall Shapley's account of his meeting with Frost. Still, Dr. Shapley made a strong impression, one that lingers yet. Bemused by Frost and viewing him as something of a character, Shapley presented himself as a forthright man of science and common sense, hardheaded but broad-minded. Therefore, the words I attribute to him--and those he attributed to Frost--must be taken as no more than approximations intended to convey the essence of what he said and to suggest something of the spirit in which he said it.
Brooks, Cleanth. Modern Poetry and the Tradition. New York: Oxford UP, 1965.
Frost, Robert. Robert Frost: Poetry and Prose. Ed. Edward C. Lathem and Lawrance Thompson. New York: Holt, 1972.
Pobojewski, Sally. "This Is the Way the World Ends." LSAmagazine 23.1 ( Fall 1999): 28--29.
From The Explicator 59.1 (Fall 2000)