Various parallels exist between the “real” situation Robert Frost depicts in his poem “Design” and the ways the speaker presents that situation in the poem. The speaker claims to have seen a decayed white flower bearing a large white spider holding a rigid white moth. The conjunction of all these images of whiteness suggests an uncanny “design” in the natural scene. It is as if somehow these three examples of whiteness came together not by mere accident but by some sort of larger purpose. Moreover, each of the three white things the speaker observes seem associated, in some way, with death: the normally blue flower is losing its color; the spider ehas killed the moth; and the moth is clearly dead. Thus the natural scene seems doubly designed – not only because of the three examples of whiteness but also because of the three connotations linking whiteness with death.
The speaker’s presentation of this apparent design is itself designed very carefully. The poem is a Petrarchan sonnet, consisting of an octave (the first eight lines) and a sestet (the last six lines). The octave follows the standard Petrarchan rhyme scheme for an octave: a/b/b/a a/b/b/a. However, instead of structuring the sestet in some standard Petrarchan pattern (such as c/d/e c/d/e), the speaker imposes a highly unusual and fairly difficult design on the last six lines: a/c/a/c/c. The final two lines are reminiscent of the final couplet of a Shakespearean sonnet, and so the speaker has complicated his design still further. Ultimately, only three different rhyme sounds are heard in this poem – a fact that is entirely appropriate to the three different images (of flower, spider, and moth) on which the poem focuses.
The poem reveals even more intricacy of design upon closer examination. Thus, the first two lines of the octave introduce the spider, the flower, and the moth (in that order). Similarly, the last two lines of the octave also describe the spider, the flower, and the moth (again in that order). It is as if, in a poem about design, the speaker tries to impose very clear and even somewhat inflexible designs upon his own work of art.
Thus, the sestet also shows extremely close attention to design. Once more the three figures – flower, spider, and moth – are mentioned, but while the octave had made statements, the sestet is mainly given over to questions: three of them, as a matter of fact. Frost thus uses the sestet as a kind of commentary on the octave – a kind of design that was common in Petrarchan sonnets. The octave presents the observations of the speaker; the sestet presents questions that seem designed to provoke thought from the reader.
The final question, interestingly enough, functions as a kind of answer to the first two. It is as if the first two questions relate to the three figures the poem has discussed (the flower, spider, and moth), while the third question is a response to the first two queries. The first two questions ask what brought these three figures together; the third and final question provides a sort of answer:
What but design of darkness to appall? --
If design govern in a thing so small. (13-14)
Notice, though, how the final line -- cast in the form of a statement, opens up yet another question. Thus, in all the ways already demonstrated, the poem itself demonstrates that design can indeed "govern . . . a thing so small."