What is Frost's general question about the design of the world?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In "Design," Robert Frost's general question seems a rather skeptical one: Just how involved is the Creator with his creations? In other words, is there truly a "design" to all that is in the world, and if so, then how benign is the Creator, after all?

Perhaps to lend the aura of solemnity to this poem, the poet positions the simple thought about a spider, a heal-all, and a moth--all devoid of color--into sonnet form. But, unlike the Petrarchan sonnet whose octave poses the problem and the sestet that offers the solution, Frost's sestet does not define an answer. Rather, it leaves the reader with contradictory ideas:

What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?--
If design govern in a thing so small

In the second-to-last line, for instance, there is the contradiction of "design of darkness" with the word appall whose archaic meaning [Middle English] means to grow or make pale. This uncertainty in the question of the final couplet, a poetic convention that usually offers a solution in the sonnet form, establishes the incongruity between the question posed in the couplet and the title "Design," signifying descriptive of intent. Such incongruity does, indeed, appear to suggest the poet's skepticism.