• Robert Service

I’ve always admired Robert Frost’s poem, “Fire and Ice,” but today I’m not so sure. Will the world end in fire or ice, Frost wonders, and he considers it a darned good question. Probably fire, he muses—”from what I’ve tasted of desire.” On the other hand, “I think I know enough of hate / To say that for destruction ice / Is also great / And would suffice.”

So we’ll have to wait and see.

But what’s with all the extraneous material, the chatter about desire and hate? If you asked in June I’d have said they’re what Frost’s poem is actually about. But this week I don’t think it’s necessary to make ice a metaphor for anything. This kind of cold signifies the end of the world entirely on its own authority.

The British-Canadian Robert Service also dealt with fire and ice when he wrote “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” which I’m nominating as the finest “colder than a Tibetan tin toilet top” poem ever written. (See the Straight Dope message board for other excellent entries in its “colder than a _____” survey.)

I hesitated to write about “The Cremation of Sam McGee” because I assumed every schoolchild knew this turn-of-the-last-century poem pretty much by heart. But it turns out schoolchildren don’t. Neither do most people my age. Maybe I read it as a boy only because I attended a Canadian school, where it was virtually a sacred text. I have to admit that it put dangerous ideas in my head. (1) Poetry is a lot of fun. (2) Poems that rhyme are a lot more fun than poems that don’t.

These two ideas did me irreparable damage when it came time to embrace the recondite pleasures of literature’s toniest exercises. But since you’re already an adult, you’re mature enough to survive the perils of “Sam McGee” and reap its rewards. The biggest reward comes at the very end, when Service tells us how to deal with our cold weather. It’s sure-fire.