Other Dimensions: An Analysis of "Fire and Ice" and "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost
Robert Frost was born in San Francisco in 1874, but lived most of his life in New England. He led a life punctuated by personal tragedy, losing three children, and enduring the loss of his wife early in life. Though these troubles did not generally manifest themselves in his poems directly, it seems undeniable that they had some impact on his writing. As a writer, Frost is considered one of the most successful American poets of all time. He published numerous collections of extraordinarily popular poetry, and won four Pulitzer Prizes. Frost’s language is often very plain and seemingly simple, rarely using an extensive vocabulary and following a plain rhyme scheme. His rhetoric is measured and exact as he attempts to use the rhythms of speech and language as it is really used, or "the sound of sense", in his own words . His poems also seem to dispense simple or amusing wisdom about life in general. However, beneath the simple language and basic platitudes of both "Fire and Ice" and "The Road Not Taken," are complex meanings that are not initially evident.
Upon initial reading of "The Road Not Taken", Frost’s intent seems obvious. The poem is in the first person, and the traveler is presented with two paths leading to the future. He makes his choice, and later relates it:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
(Frost, "The Road Not Taken" lines 16-20)
We are led to believe that the choice of paths has been beneficial, and that "the one less traveled by" was the correct choice. This is a comforting platitude, and is the most common interpretation of "The Road Not Taken," but it ignores many elements of the poem which become evident upon further inspection.
The common interpretation also ignores the biographical element present in the poem. Frost himself noted that the "The Road Not Taken" was "the best example in all of American poetry of a wolf in sheep’s clothing." According to a letter between Frost and his good friend Edward Thomas, the poem springs from their walks together, where Thomas would take Frost down one path and then regret not having taken another. It seems that "...Frost assumes the mask of his friend, taking his voice and his posture, including the un-Frostian sounding line ‘I shall be telling this with a sigh,’ to poke fun at Thomas’ vacillations..." (Kearns). This interpretation is sarcastic, and drains the platitude from the poem, but leaves room for even further interpretation.
Several times in the poem Frost insists that the two paths in question are identical and equal:
Then took the other, as just as fair
...Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same
And both that morning equally lay"
(Frost, "The Road Not Taken" lines 6, 9-11
Yet the walker makes a decision based on one road being "better." One biographer notes that this could be Frost’s dark irony striking again: "Frost signals the mockingly self-inflated tone of the last stanza by repeating the word ‘I,’ which rhymes -several times - with the inflated word ‘sigh.’ Frost wants the reader to know that what he will be saying, that he took the road less traveled, is a fraudulent position, hence the sigh." (Parini). It seems that Frost is saying "When I am old, like all old men, I shall make a myth of my life. I shall pretend, as we all do, that I took the less traveled road. But I shall be lying." (Parini)
"Fire and Ice" is a far more compact poem than "The Road Not Taken," but is in some ways more dramatic. The most common interpretation of it is that the options outlined in the title and the poem represent the heat of passion and the cold of hatred, two ways of destroying the world (Meyers). The first-person narrator of "Fire and Ice" says that "From what I’ve tasted of desire / I hold with those who favor fire," (Frost, "Fire and Ice" lines 3-4) likely indicating Frost’s preference to passion over hatred as the lesser of two evils. Frost underscores this by making ice the cause of the second death:
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
(Frost, "Fire and Ice" lines 5-9)
Comparing this poem with Dante’s "Inferno," additional layers of symbolism and complexity become apparent. "Fire and Ice" is only nine lines, making it quite short, but also mirroring Dante’s nine circles of hell. One comparison points out: "Although Frost’s poem is not exactly funnel shaped like Dante’s hell...Frost literally cuts in half his general pattern of four stresses (iambic tetrameter) to close on two lines having only two stresses each (iambic dimeter). " (Serio 1). Frost also uses the rhyme scheme Dante created for use in his Divine Comedy, called terza rima.
Frost also follows the representations of desire and hatred that Dante derived from Aristotle. As noted above, fire represents desire and cold hatred. The organization of Dante’s Inferno is that sins of reason are worse than sins of passion. Frost associates fire with the senses and places it first, or near the top of his poem, while cold is associated with calculated hatred, the perversion of reason (Serio 2).
The two poems, "Fire and Ice" and "The Road Not Taken" have a great deal in common. Both introduce a first-person speaker who experiences and relates the events in the poems. The language, like much of Frost’s work, is rhyming and structured, but simple and without overt verbal ornamentation. Both poems offer the narrator choices in his predicament: in "The Road Not Taken," the choice between roads, in "Fire and Ice" the choice between passion or hatred. They both, as has been illustrated, have hidden layers of constructed "tricks" with multiple meanings. Similarly, the poems deal with global issues, things which effect all of mankind. "The Road Not Taken" addresses choices people make in life, especially if one subscribes to the more in-depth interpretation of the poem. "Fire and Ice" deals with ethics and morality, and uses the symbolism of Dante and the logic of Aristotle to make Frost’s point.
It is obvious that as Frost’s poems are examined carefully and compared with other poetry, hidden meanings and greater depths emerge. In "The Road Not Taken," the poem initially seems to be a cliche, but when closely examined both biographically and verbally, it becomes an almost sarcastic commentary on the choices people make in life. An introductory interpretation of "Fire and Ice" will hint at the meaning that Frost intended, but the depth of his ethical examination only becomes apparent when the poem is compared to Dante’s seminal work. "Fire and Ice" is very nearly a compact version of the Inferno. When interpreted in this way, both poems reveal a darkly ironic and troubled man, which based on Frost’s past, certainly seems possible. Nonetheless, these poems are clearly the work of a master, carefully woven with meaning while remaining true to the author’s style of simplistic language.
Frost, Robert. "Fire and Ice." Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing. Harcourt College Publishers, 2000. 589
Frost, Robert. "The Road Not Taken." Harcourt College Publishers, 2000. 802-803
Kearns, Katherine. Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994
Meyers, Jeffrey. Robert Frost: A Biography. 1996
Parini, Jay. "Frost." Columbia Literary History of the United States. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998
Robert Frost: Biography. A site to support Kennedy & Gioia’s Literature, 7th Edition. Literature Onine - Poetry Author Casebook. 4 Apr. 2001 (http://longman.awl.com/kennedy/frost/biography.html)
Serio, John. "Frost’s Fire and Ice and Dante’s Inferno." Explicator 57.4 (1999) : 218- 222