Thursday, February 19, 2015

"Though I am young, and cannot tell" - Ben Jonson, Fire and Ice - Robert Frost

Though I am young and cannot tell
Either what Death or Love is well,
Yet I have heard they both bear darts,
And both do aim at human hearts.
And then again, I have been told
Love wounds with heat, as Death with cold;
So that I fear they do but bring
Extremes to touch, and mean one thing.

As in a ruin we it call
One thing to be blown up, or fall;
Or to our end like way may have
By a flash of lightning, or a wave;
So Love's inflamèd shaft or brand
May kill as soon as Death's cold hand;
Except Love's fires the virtue have
To fright the frost out of the grave.

This poem, I feel, is very naturally paired with the Robert Frost poem, Fire and Ice, presented below:

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.

As I'm sure you can tell, reader, though separated by centuries and an ocean, Jonson and Frost hit upon similar ideas.  In both, Love and Death are presented as opposing forces, with the attributes of heat and cold, respectively.  In both, it's clear that Love and Death are both destructive forces.  Both express a favor (however slight) towards love, while acknowledging how dangerous and destructive it can be.

For Jonson, he believes that "Love's fires the virtue have to fright the frost out of the grave."  Love can conquer death, essentially.  Frost isn't so optimistic, but, from what he has "tasted of desire, [he] hold[s] with those who favor fire."  The conflation of desire and fire here is enough for me to establish the link between fire and Love, and ice and Death, as in Jonson's poem.

One difference that strikes me most of all is that of age and experience.  Jonson begins his poem by saying that he is young, and it's sure what Love or Death really are, but he knows that they can both be destructive.  Frost seems to be speaking from a more experienced position, citing what he has tasted of desire and known of hate.  I wonder then, if in Frost's experience, he finds Love unable to conquer death, unable to turn its fiery passion in a positive direction.  Frost doesn't moralize his lesson much, which I generally appreciate; I think that's our job as readers.

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