These two poems are completely different in tone, message and overall impact. They also use language in very different ways to create a completely different world.
‘Fire and Ice’ by Robert Frost is short and cryptic and, in one sense, very conventional – he uses rhyme to give his poem a clear pattern. The poem is casual and child-like in tone, but the subject matter is very adult – it is an apocalyptic poem, imagining the end of the world. Frost deals with abstract emotions – desire and hate – and explicitly compares them to, respectively, heat and fire, and to ice. His inspiration for the poem was a passage from Dante’s Inferno, Canto 32, describing a scene from Hell – where the very worst offenders sent to Hell are the traitors who are forced to endure the fires of hell while standing in ice up to their necks. The rhyme, the simplicity of the words, and the child-like tone mask the deeply serious issues that Frost is touching on here. We might detect in phrases like “From what I’ve tasted of desire” (3) and “I think I know enough of hate” (6) the tone of a man experienced in extreme human emotions – but which are masked by the tone of the poem. I get a sense of a man who has loved and hated passionately, but who now has been left with little energy – hence the simplicity of the poem, as though Frost carries the scars of having loved and hated passionately but has now resigned himself to the future.
‘Theme for English B’ by Langston Hughes is very different as a poem. It is much longer, set out in irregular stanzas and conversational in tone, because part of the poem is addressed to Hughes’s teacher. The subject matter of ‘Theme for English B’ is much more everyday and ordinary than Frost’s ‘Fire and Ice’ with its apocalyptic overtones. In a way Hughes’s poem is about the difficulty of writing a poem. It is more everyday because he mentions real places – “St Nichols,/Eighth Avenue, Seventh “ (11-12) – and we know from the poem that Hughes lives in Harlem and is African-American. As the poem progresses Hughes makes it clearer that the pome is about the difficulty of writing as an African-American in an all-white class, but his mood is of reconciliation, not confrontation. He addresses his instructor:
You are white –
Yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American. (30-32)
Hughes takes pride in his background (20-26) and he does recognize that the America he lives in (1920s America) still has problems with racism –
As I learn form you –
I guess you learn from me –
Although you’re older – and white –
And somewhat more free. (36-39)
But the tone of these lines is not confrontational: together he and his instructor can learn about each other.