This Mediocre Robert Frost Poem Is a Great Fit for the Deeply Mediocre Twilight: Eclipse
Vampires and werewolves and metaphors, oh my! I love Frost, but I've always been baffled by our fascination with the so-so poem Stephanie Meyer chose to include in her paranormal teen romance series.
Happy Spooky Season! Get ready for creepy, Halloween-themed posts all month long here at PopPoetry. It’s my favorite season, after all!
We’re starting off by tackling a well-known poem that appears in a well-known franchise. And as much as I like to champion the inclusion of poetry in popular culture, I have to say, I really, really don’t dig these films or the books they’re based on, and perhaps most controversially, I don’t like the poem, either. HORRIFYING!
Let’s uh, sink our teeth into some vampire stuff. Deep breaths.
It’s time to talk about Twilight.
Paranormal Teen Romance Meets 20th-Century Poetry
It’s also time to talk about one of the biggies in American Literature. Hell no, I’m not talking about Stephanie Meyer. I’m talking about Robert Frost.
Frost is a titan of poetry who, like so many white male artists, was also maybe not-so-secretly kind of a bastard. Or maybe that’s made up. Critics are divided on his legacy. Ignored by academics in his time, Frost had tons of popular exposure and is now adored or loathed by legions.
Kind of like Twilight.
Full disclosure: I have not read The Twilight Saga, though I have attempted to on several occasions (even recently in the case of Eclipse as part of the research for this article). Friends—I simply cannot tolerate more than a few pages.
Exercises in correcting, discussing, and lampooning Meyer’s writing style abound online. Her writing, while immensely popular, is not as well-crafted as one might wish, though legions of teens (and adults) have found them utterly captivating. I find Meyer’s writing to be arduous, difficult to immerse oneself in, and flat.
And before you sound the alarms of elitism, know that I am someone who adores and studies popular culture with no small amount of rigor. While I write literary poetry and prose when I’m not banging away here at PopPoetry, I believe that the distinctions between genre fiction and literary fiction and, increasingly, what I’ve called “genre poetry” and literary poetry, should not be an antagonism.
But there’s no denying the laboriousness of Meyer’s prose. Let’s not forget the infamous “Ha, ha, ha,” made fun of in a misquoted meme that has made the rounds for ages. Behold, the actual passage from the second book in the Twilight series, New Moon:
Ha, ha, ha. Twice. On one page.
Anyhow, if I may attempt to defend Meyer for one millisecond it will only be to say that bad writing has existed since writing has existed. The fact that a woman is making a lot of money from her bad writing is what folks are actually taking issue with, deep down.
The point I want to make is that Meyer’s work is ultimately disappointing in its quality and bland in its tone and style. She attempts to leaven her bland prose with a fascinating epigraph: the poem “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost, first published in 1920.
The poem occurs as the epigraph to the Eclipse book, but it was also selected for inclusion in The Twilight Saga: Eclipse film, which is why we’re here. In fact, Bella (Kristen Stewart) reads the poem in the film’s opening scene.
So why this poem? What does it do for the book, and by extension, for the film? To answer that, we have to consider the poem more closely first.
The End of the World
What does the poem say on its surface? Here it is in its entirety:
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.
Ok. Now, what is the poem saying beneath the surface?
The first two lines are pretty self-explanatory and are so rooted in the real world that astronomer Harlow Shapley claimed that a discussion he had with Frost himself about eschatology, or theories about the end of the world, inspired the poem directly.
Things get more interesting in lines 3-4. “I’ve experienced desire,” Frost says, “and I think it can be destructive enough to end the world, like fire.” There’s a turn in the poem, then, in line 5. “But,” is our clue, here. Frost gets to answer his own question again and admits that if the world could somehow end twice (a conceit he invents in order to make his following point) that hate, which he equates with ice, is also destructive enough to end the world.
That’s the poem. It’s concise, follows a tidy little interlocked ABA ABC BCB that underscores the ways in which desire (the “A” rhyme) and hate (the “B” rhyme) have a relationship, and both are mutually destructive. If you’re digging down, I’d argue that the four B rhymes slightly “outweigh” the three A rhymes, making hate the clearer cause of the end of the world, but only by a hair.
And now for my secret: I do not think this is a very impressive poem.
I find Frost’s revelation that love and hatred both have destructive power to be too commonplace. Critics marveled at the poem’s concision when it was first published and continue to marvel at it today. But that concision wallpapers over a thin intellectual core: in other words, no duh. Too much of a good thing or too much of a bad thing can both be destructive and cause the end of “the” world or of “a” world in a personal sense.
And now for my secret: I do not think this is a very impressive poem.
Is this not common knowledge? Perhaps not in 1920. But to contemporary ears, or at least my contemporary ear, I find this poem to be prosaic and uninteresting. Frost has so many deeply affecting poems and imagistic, evocative poems full of deep existential questioning. But “Fire and Ice” is not these things. It is merely clever, and not even very clever, at that. It’s said that the “ice” that inspired Frost was Dante’s depiction of Satan frozen chest-high in ice in the center of hell.
One wonders if Frost was trying too hard, in 1920, to participate in the zeitgeist by writing a poem that looks Modernist in its trappings. Some even classify Frost as a Modernist and cite poems such as this one as their proof. No idea what I’m talking about? This article might help. But essentially, I don’t see the fragmentation, imagism, and even the edge of absurdity in Frost’s work that I do in many Modernist works. But this poem wants, very much, to appear modern.
Hot & Cold & Not Much Else
Edward Cullen (the vampire played by Robert Pattinson) and Jacob Black (the werewolf played by Taylor Lautner) are cast as polar opposites and love interests for Bella in this series. Meyer really bashes you over the head with how different the two are and assigns them super-obvious physical characteristics that match their personalities in case you don’t get it. Edward, being dead, is physically cold and emotionally more reserved. Jacob is hot-blooded like a beast and angers easily, letting his passions govern him.
Is this metaphor so simplistic because Meyer’s characters are flat, or because the poem itself is flat and has little potential for deeper application?
It is with some regret that I tell you that the poem’s inclusion in the book and film is, indeed, this simple. For Meyer, Jacob is fire and Edward is ice. Bella wonders if her personal world will be destroyed by one over the other, coming to understand that either outcome is possible. Love has destructive power, and so does hate. The question is merely which form of destruction and change she prefers.
That’s it. Fire and ice. Get it?
But is this metaphor (so obvious I almost hesitate to call it a metaphor) so simplistic because Meyer’s characters are flat, or because the poem itself is flat and has little potential for deeper application?
Is the answer to both these questions Yes?
The poem is a great fit for the book in that, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, neither are as deep as they think they are.
The Twilight franchise has an enormous following, which means that lots of folks have been exposed to this poem. Part of me thrills to see so many people attempting to close-read “Fire and Ice” online. I’m a firm believer that an attempt at interpretation is the most important interaction that a human being can have with a piece of art, even if that interpretation ultimately reaches conclusions that lie outside of “traditional” interpretations or if the text they’re scrutinizing can’t bear the weight of the scrutiny.
But at the same time, it feels like Twilight fans are working harder to justify the poem’s inclusion in the book than Stephanie Meyer ever did.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments! Maybe I can learn to love “Fire and Ice,” with your help. Subscribe for more creepy goodness this October and beyond!