Design by Robert Frost

Published 21 Feb 2017

In the grand scheme of things designed by God and nature, we often find that mother nature, as exquisite as she is, possesses a certain formidable quality. Frost wrote this ironic and rather daunting poem regarding the hurtful aspect of God’s design, as lovely as it may be.

Regarding the diction, or word choice that Frost employs, note his repetitive inclination toward the color white in the first three lines. The spider, he describes as dimpled, fat and white, sitting on a white heal-all flower, which was a deliberate choice on his part, since heal-all flowers are in reality blue. He even goes so far as to compare the moth that the spider is holding up to “a white piece of rigid satin cloth”, much like the fabric of a bridal dress. The color white is commonly known as a symbol of impeccability, chastity and purity. His choice of words, or color, for that matter, portrays a picture of flawless serenity, yet somewhat eerie, being that in most cultures spiders are considered a symbol of evil and somewhat appalling. Also, his reference to the moth as being held like a stiff piece of cloth gives us a picture of death, since death is often associated with stiffness and rigidity. The words adopted by Frost in the next few lines become more explicit regarding the sinister nature of the scene. His usage of words like “death and blight”, “dead wings”, “ingredients of a witches broth”, all come together to lend a morbid and a markedly ominous quality to the poem. Frost then goes on to question the coincidence of a heal all flower posing as a white flower, along with a white spider, who employs the flowers assistance in climbing to the top and being camouflaged by its color, deceiving the innocent white moth.

Moving onto the syntax, which is, the word order of this poem, we note that Frost has allowed himself a certain amount of freedom while writing it. The general word order of the sentences and phrases in the poem follow the pattern of subject-verb-object. Take the first few words for example, “I found a dimpled spider, fat and white”. “I” being the subject, “found” being the verb, and “spider” being the object. This is the most commonly used word order in the English language and is easily understood by the masses. That may well be the reason that this is the order Frost adopted for most of his poems; to reach out to the masses. He does, however, at the end of the first line, add adjectives, “fat and white”, lending to it a more rhythmic and poetic feel. The general word order of the entire poem is easy to read, almost what most of us would consider “layman’s English”, lending to it a smooth, flowing quality.

Frosts tone throughout his sonnet is ironic, pessimistic, and questioning of the natures design. Take for example, his description of heal all and spider as being white, pure, and innocent, much like the moth that is being eaten in this poem. However, they contradict their “white” nature by being described as “Assorted characters of death and blight” and “Like the ingredients of a witch’s broth”. These descriptions are meant to cynically portray them as deceitful and dishonest. Note the sarcasm in his tone as he states that they are “ready to begin the morning right”, almost as if they were headed out to another days work. Further along the poem, starting at the sestet, Frost begins to question the design of nature, and asks himself and the reader what “appalling” force lies behind this particular design of nature. Some readers state that he may be questioning the existence of a benevolent God. His tone shifts from smooth, albeit sarcastic to quizzical, along with sounding incensed.

What but design of darkness to appall?

If design govern in a thing so small.

A white spider, a deceptively white heal-all flower, “ingredients of a witches broth”, an ill fated white moth with “dead wings like a paper kite” and “white rigid satin cloth”; all are the frightening images employed by Frost to make his poem vividly alarming. The flower being described as being “like froth”, reminds the reader of insanity. The albino spider, which would normally be black, is even more eerie being white, almost contradicting its murderous nature. Witches broth has for centuries been seen as an image of evil being concocted, quietly brewing in its cauldron. The dead moth’s wings being compared with a paper kite and rigid satin cloth give us a dramatic yet sadly realistic image of death, and its inevitability.

Design, although seemingly simple with the sing song quality in the earlier part of the poem, is better understood when looked at and read metaphorically. The perfectly executed sonnet is a glimpse into Frosts own world. His own father was an atheist and his mother was swedenborgian. Although he studied the bible throughout his life for spiritual and literary purposes, he refused to commit himself to any form of organized religion. Looking at his timeline, one realizes why he may have been disappointed with God. His sister Jeanie was sent to a mental institution, he survived four of his children, one of whom had committed suicide at the age of thirty eight. His wife Elinor died of a heart attack two years prior to their son’s suicide. His daughter Irma suffered the fate of an unhappy marriage and had to be sent to an insane asylum. His daughter Lesley refused to allow him to live with her, for she blamed him for ruining his own children’s’ lives and was worried he might be a bad influence on her children. Needless to say, a disappointment in God’s “design” was inevitable. Whenever he was questioned about his own religion, he would artfully dodge the subject. Design is a metaphorical poem regarding Frost’s own view of the universe and God. He may be likening himself to the helpless moth, stuck in the circle of life, defenselessly suffering through the jokes he claimed God was playing on him. Robert Frost biographer Jeffrey Meyers claims that the fact that spider and heal all are deceptively white is a play on his wife’s name, Elinor, which means “light”, similar to and rhyming with “white”. The following quotes by Robert Frost support this theory regarding the figures of speech and the metaphorical meaning of the poem:

Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee

And I’ll forgive Thy great big one on me.

We find more of Frost’s skepticism regarding the benevolence of God in books such as A Further Range, written in 1936:
I turned to speak to God

About the world’s despair

But to make bad matters worse

I found God wasn’t there.

Regarding the use of symbols in this poem, it goes hand in hand with his word choice. A stated earlier, the color white is a symbol of purity in most cultures. He assigns this color to the spider, which is actually a symbol of death and evil, and to the heal all, which would normally be be blue. The symbols used by Frost portray his ironic tone. A heal-all flower is normally regarded as therapeutic and useful. Yet, in this sonnet, it deceptively white, camouflaging the spider, who also has no business being white. He uses that moth as a symbol representing himself, and other helpless human beings, being devoured by the evil aspect of God’s design. Also, as stated earlier, his rocky marriage to Elinor may well have been a playing factor in penning this poem. Jeffrey Meyers, as mentioned earlier, claimed that the color white was used to represent a similarity to the meaning of Elinor’s name, “light”. Frost may well be using the deceptively white spider and white heal all as symbols representing the people in his life, including his wife.

An allegory is a collection of symbols; a representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms. Allegories can be in the form of a story, a poem, an essay, or a fable, among others. Design is one of the best examples of an allegory, rich with symbols such as the white spider, the white heal all, the helpless moth with dead wings like a paper kite. Through the allegorical nature of this poem, Frost expresses his thooughts and opinion regarding the grand plan tailored by God, and questions if he really is paying close attention to his own design.

Frost favored irony in almost all his literary works. Design is abundant with ironic references to God’s will and master plan. So pure and white, and yet so deceptive and evil. The poem perfectly portrays Frost’s sardonic nature, as he antagonises the concept of a perfect universe created by an all-benign God. He does so by questioning the intentions of the heal-all flower and the spider, posing as being chaste and white.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?

Note that in the sestet, he ironically refers to the spider as being “kindred”, a synoym of affable, agreeable and friendly. Most beguiling indeed!

Upon careful observation, the reader begins to recognise the “sound” of a poem. Note that the first line of the poem has exactly ten syllables, setting the pace for the rest of the poem. Frost once claimed “This one hasn’t any tune at all”. On the contrary, the sonnet has a set sound pattern. However, it varies from line to line. Take for instance line 4, where every syllable needs to be stressed, followed by lines that contain unstressed syllables, to soften Frost’s allegations that spider and the heal-all are evil. There is considerable emphasis on the “I” sound throughout the poem; white, blight, right, kite, height, and night, linking the forces of evil and symbols of purity to each other, whereas the other rhymes are less stressed. All the lines of this poem are iambic pentameters, but arranged loosely, so as to soften the “sound”.

Rhythm, being similar to the sound of the poem, is a sequence of cadences found thorughout the lines of the poem. Frost, in this poem, several times alters the rhythm by using strict iambic followed by loose iambics. Note the first line of the poem builds up to a certain rhythm “I found a dimpled spider, fat and white”. The line almost has a sing song and light hearted rhythm to it. The next line, however, seems to break that rhythm, and becomes less poetic and more detached. The reader notices a further build up of rhythm in the next few lines, with a symmetry between the sounds “o” and “I”. In the sestet, however, Frost completely changes the rhythm through change in tone. His voice becomes less declarative and more interrogative. He does also, however use a few hesittaive words like “if” and “govern” to break the rising in cadence and to dissociate the perception of evil as being always strictly dark and hardbound.

The poetic form that Design follows is that of a sonnet. It is formed by an octave of eight lines, and a sestet of six lines. This is the Petrarchan model of a sonnet. He did however, deviate from the traditonal model, as he often did in his poems, by using only three rhymes throughout the poem, rather then four: “ight”, “oth”, and “all”.

Works Cited

  • Jarrell, Randall. “Poetry and the Age”. Knopf, 1953.
  • Brower, Reuben A. “The Poetry of Robert Frost: Constellations of Intention.” New York: Oxford UP, 1963.
  • Meyers, Jeffrey. “Robert Frost: A Biography”. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, MA, 1996. (Original publisher unknown)
  • Parini, Jay. “The Columbia History of American Poetry”. Columbia University Press, 1993.
  • “Wikipedia”.
  • DiYanni, Robert. “Modern American Poets: Their Voices and Visions.” McGraw Hill, 1993.
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