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 I had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To sat that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
The heart of Frost's poem lies in the contrast between the
elements of fire and ice. In the first two lines, the speaker
explains their connection: both are ways that people believe the
world will end. The speaker aligns (in lines 3-7) fire with desire
and accordingly, ice with hate. The comparison makes perfect sense
when one considers that desire is usually associated with burning and
heat, with warmth. Hate, on the other hand, is the absence of warmth.
Hate is cold, bitterly so. Whereas desire entails some sort of
contact between two people or ideals or objects (or, at the very
least, a wanting of such a contact), hate involves separation. Hate
acts as a repellant; it exists in the space between two things. If
one person hates another, then it is highly unlikely that the two
will ever have close contact. The constant distance between them
allows the hate to grow and thrive.
That the speaker uses the word "tasted" in line 3 is very significant. To taste something implies a personal contact. Witnessing an occurence is one thing but to actually taste something is highly subjective. This choice of words creates a shift in the poem. The first two lines use the word "world" without any other description, But, the addition of the first person pronouns (I've) as well as the word "taste", creates a second, more personal world. This is the world of the speaker's experience and it exists as a separate entity from the larger world of the first two lines.
From this personal perspective, the speaker judges the destructive powers of fire and ice. Based on lines 3-4, fire is the superior choice. Yet, in the remaining lines of the poem (5-9), the suggestion is made that ice is also sufficient as a means of destruction. The fact that fire, and as an extension desire, is the method of choice is interesting. On the surface, it would appear that desire is a more positive force. Desire leads to action. Desire can yield positive results. Hate, on the contrary, is always a negative force. No good can come of hate.
In spite of this, the speaker believes that the fire of desire is more deadly. This implies a self-destructive quality. Perhaps in trying to satisfy a desire, one goes too far, ultimately destroying the very thing that he/she is trying to achieve. This situation can be re-created visually. Imagine desire as a fire running through a forest. Beginning with one spark, it soon rages out of control. It is the very essence of chaos, destroying everything and anything in its path. Fire and in many ways desire are inherently uncontrollable.
Another fascinating element of the poem is the line structure. The lines that describe fire are longer; those describing ice are short and end abruptly. Accordingly, consummation by fire takes time. The process of burning is not instantaneous. As the reader reads the line from right to left, he/she is reminded of a fire burning across the page. The opposite also holds true. Unlike the fire lines, the lines pertaining to ice do not flow across the page. In fact, they are short, seemingly stunted. This structure fits very well when one considers the type of action that hate entails. If desire moves things closer together, then hate freezes them in their tracks. Hate prevents motion and growth. An untimely frost has the potential to ruin young fruit before it has matured on the tree. That the lines describing ice (and hate) are short is fitting from this perspective.
Lastly, an examination of the tone is important in coming to a clear understanding of the poem. The general tone of "Fire and Ice" is one of understatement. It is the type of tone a grandfather might affect when he tells stories to a with a young grandson. The speaker of the poem is wise and weary. In his life, he has experienced both burning desires and icy hatred. More importantly, he has survived both which gives him the ability to speak of their dangers. The last line of the poem is an understatement. It adds a subtle, ironic tinge to the entire piece. As a means of destruction, ice clearly "would suffice" (line 9). The reason for the sublety is clear. Desire, particularly burning desire, is a difficult thing to contain. Hate is the opposite; it thrives on suppression. The last line is understated as a way of displaying the sneaking quality of hate, the way it exists best in silence, unexamined and unbothered.
Frost's "Fire and Ice" in the end brings together two emotions that people normally believe to be opposite and proves that they have one thing in common. Ultimately, they are both destructive in their individual intensities.