Astronomy and Symbolism: A Reading of Robert Frost's "Fire and Ice"
Sometimes first-time readers of Robert Frost's "Fire and Ice" are a little surprised and confused to learn that the poem's basic symbolism comes from astronomy. The following explanation ought to make the astronomy references less confusing and also make the meaning of the poem a bit clearer.
According to Tom Hansen, right after World War One Robert Frost was teaching a poetry class at Harvard. In the faculty lounge one day he walked up to Professor Harlow Shapley, who taught astronomy at Harvard and who was world-famous for his recent work on the size of the universe. Frost asked the noted scientist how the world was going to end. At first Shapley thought Frost was kidding him, but eventually the astronomer realized that the poet was serious. When Frost repeated the question, Shapley told him that some scientists believed the world would be incinerated when the sun exploded some day and that other scientists believed the sun would grow cold as its fuel burned out and that the earth would end up in frozen darkness. (Hansen)
A few months later -- in 1920 -- Frost's little poem "Fire and Ice" was published, and Hansen reports that when Professor Shapley saw the poem, he immediately began claiming that he had inspired Frost's poem. Shapley's claim certainly makes sense because the opening of the poem sounds just like Shapley's answer to Frost's question: "Some say the world will end in fire. / Some say in ice."
So it is really not surprising to say that poem starts off with a literal reference to the scientific opinions of Shapley and other astronomers. It is also fair to say that the original readers of the poem would easily recognize those references. After all, the 1920's were great years for American astronomy. Edwin Hubble was at work discovering distant galaxies, George Ellery Hale was raising the funds to build the giant telescope at Mount Palomar Observatory, and Harlow Shapley himself had just published a book entitled The Scale of the Universe, in which he astounded the public by demonstrating that the universe was billions of times larger than anyone had realized. There was also a debate staged in 1920 at the Smithsonian between Shapley and another astronomer named Curtis. Even today astronomers refer to that debate as "the Great Debate." ("Harlow Shapley") The debate and the other items just mentioned along with any other astronomy-related events were covered as front-page news stories back in the early 1900's, so it is clear that "Fire and Ice" starts with references to astronomy that the newspaper-reading public would be familiar with. Astronomy was big-time news in those days.
Now "Fire and Ice" may start with literal references to scientific views of the end of the world, but it is obvious that Frost goes on to link the inner world of emotions and feelings to the outer world of exploding or freezing stars. As is evident from the following paraphrase, he links fire with desire, and he links ice with hate:Some experts say the world will be incinerated when the sun explodes at some time in the future; other experts say the earth will freeze when the sun starts running out of fuel and cooling off. From what I know about human desire I agree with the experts who say the world will end in fire; but I also know that cold-blooded hatred is a powerful force as well and would also be enough to destroy the world.Surely it is obvious that Frost is no longer talking about the physical world. All the desire and all the hatred on this whole planet are obviously not able to destroy the actual physical planet. What Frost is saying is that desire and hatred can destroy our inner worlds. Frost is doing what poets often do, i.e., he is using the outer world as a symbol of what goes on in our hearts and souls.
Simply put, Frost has used astronomy as a symbol for what goes on inside of human souls and as a way of telling us the truth about his experience of life. Most poetry has as its real topic the highs and/or lows of human experience. Clearly Frost is claiming his own personal emotional experience as the real topic of the poem. Because of what he has "tasted of desire," he predicts the fires of desire will most likely be what destroys a person's inner world; and because of what he knows about hate, Frost concludes that ice would also be enough to destroy one's inner world. Frost tells us no details about the times he has tasted desire or how he knows so much about hate. Nevertheless we leave the poem feeling as if experience has taught us, or at least reminded us of, something important about the way that human nature works.
Hansen, Tom. The Explicator, 59.1 (Fall, 2000).
"Harlow Shapley" in Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Harlow_Shapley. Accessed February 20, 2006.