What is the theme, style, and tone of the poem "Design" by Robert Frost?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Perhaps echoing the words of Hamlet, "Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so, Frost's superbly constructed sonnet, "Design," underscores the observation that perception often determines reality for an individual as a theme.

While at first the Italian sonnet of Frost, in its light tone of near cajolery in its observation of nature, suggests the poetry of the Romantics, the poem moves to a Dark Romantic's metaphysical wrestling worthy of Melville's Ahab with its debate upon the goodness or evil of white. Then, too, there is the overtone of the New England Puritan in the consideration of a universe "designed" with the moth, the spider, and the flower all being white.  Further, the sestet ends with a question worthy of the Naturalist Stephen Crane:

What but design of darkness to appall?--

If design govern in a thing so small.

Thus, Frost's speaker proposes the question of whether the universe is benign, malign, or simply indifferent with a tone that moves from humorous observation to one of pondering the meaning of existence: 

What had that flower to do with being white?

The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?

What brought the kindred spirit to that height?

Then steered the white moth thither in the night?

Critics feels that this poem is more perfectly composed that most of Frost's as the figures in the mind match those of the ear.  For instance, the "daring" use of the same end-rhymes echoes the persistence of the speaker's mental debate. And, the disturbing discovery in the mind comes with the rhyme in line 9 of "height" and "night" with the realization in the speaker's internal monologue that what should represent "good" may, in fact, be "evil" or simply indifferent and perception may, indeed, be only the individual's reality.

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