Is the poem "Design," by Robert Frost, written in blank verse?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Robert Frost’s brief poem titled “Design” does not use blank verse, if only because the poem rhymes. The usual definition of “blank verse” involves unrhymed lines of ten syllables, with most even syllables accented. Such “meter” is called “iambic pentameter,” meaning that it consists of five “feet,” with each foot made up of two syllables, and with the accent generally on the second syllable.  Here, for example, is a classic example of an iambic pentameter line, with the accented syllable in boldface: “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?” Here is another: “When I do count the clock that tells the time.”

Here, on the other hand, is Frost’s poem, with the rhyme scheme indicated in bold letters at the end of each line:

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,  a
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth   b
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth --  b
Assorted characters of death and blight  a
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,  a
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth -- b
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,   b
And dead wings carried like a paper kite. a

The presence of rhyme prevents this poem from being in “blank” (or rhymeless) verse.  The first line of the poem does contain an iambic beat: “I found a dimpled spider, fat and white.” However, the second line departs from this pattern (as do various other lines): On a white heal-all, holding up a moth.” Line 3 departs from a regular iambic beat; line 4 uses that beat; so does line 5; line 6 departs from it; so does line 7, and so does line 8.  Only three lines in the poem, then (lines 1, 4, and 5) are absolutely regular in their use of iambic meter. 

Ironically, the rhyme scheme Frost uses here is the same rhyme scheme often used in the first eight lines of Petrarchan sonnets.  These kinds of sonnets, modeled on the works of the fourteenth-century Italian poet Francesco Petrarca, often deal with the subject of human love. Frost’s poem, in contrast, deals with the topic of an insect’s death.  Because of its use of this rhyme scheme, which is more difficult to achieve in English than in Italian, the poem reveals its own kind of “design.”

One poem that definitely uses blank verse is his work titled “Mending Wall,” which begins as follows:

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

Here there is no rhyme, but there are ten syllables per line and, in most cases, it is the even syllables that are accented.  These lines, then, are perfect examples of blank verse.


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