Fire and Ice


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 it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.


— “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost

In a classic Twilight Zone episode first broadcast in 1961, the earth has been dislodged from its orbit and is veering ever closer to the sun. Midnight is now as bright as noon, and every day brings hotter temperatures. The story follows a painter named Norma and her landlady, Mrs. Bronson, as they struggle to survive. Water is running out, and electricity is in short supply. The outlook is grim. And yet Norma is oddly hopeful. She tells her neighbor, “You know, Mrs. Bronson, I keep getting this crazy thought…this crazy thought that I am going to wake up, and none of this will have happened.” And so it turns out. Norma awakens from a feverish delirium to discover it is dark and cold. She tells Mrs. Bronson, “I had such a terrible dream. It was so hot, and there was daylight all the time…” But the earth has indeed dislodged from its orbit – except that it is rapidly veering away from the sun. In two or three weeks there will be no more sun, and everything will freeze. As the camera pans up into the dark cosmos, Rod Serling’s voice intones, “The poles of fear, the extremes of how the earth might be doomed. A minor exercise in the care and feeding of a nightmare, respectfully submitted by the thermometer watchers in the Twilight Zone.”

Fire and ice are the ostensible subjects of Frost’s poem of the same name, originally published in Harper’s Magazine in 1920. They are presented in apocalyptic terms, much as Serling did in the Twilight Zone. There are two main theories on the origins of the poem, one literary, the other scientific. Literary critics see it as a distillation of Dante’s fiery descent into hell in the Inferno. As might be expected, Lucifer abides at the very bottom, not chained to a lake of fire as depicted in the Book of Revelation, but encased in a lake of ice. Meanwhile, Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley offered a distinctly nonliterary explanation for the genesis of the poem. He had met Frost at a faculty get-together during one of Frost’s stints as poet-in-residence at the university and remembered being asked how the earth would end. Shapley told him either the planet would be incinerated, or life would perish during a prolonged ice age. "Imagine my surprise when just a year or two later, I ran across this poem," the astronomer told a lecture audience.

Literary types claim it is a fundamental misreading of the poem to conclude that Frost is treating the end of the world as anything other than a metaphor. He equates desire with fire and hatred with ice, much as Dante does in distinguishing between sins of passion, like gluttony and lust, and sins of reason, like treason. Certainly it is appropriate that cold-blood killers like Cassius and Brutus are keeping company with Lucifer in the icy lower depths of hell. But we must not be too quick to discount any direct connection between the sinful proclivities of heart or head and a literal end of the world. Left to its own devices, of course, the earth will eventually succumb to fire or ice without our involvement. But unlike in Dante’s day or even in Frost’s, we now have it within our power to bring about our own doom. Whether by thermonuclear miscalculation or runaway greenhouse effect, I favor fire.

"The Midnight Sun," written by Rod Serling, Twilight Zone, Noveber 17, 1961

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