Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564
“Design” was completed for the 1936 volume A Further Range, but Frost had completed an earlier version of the poem as far back as 1912 without attempting to publish it. In the tradition of New England Puritanism, it details closely a small event in nature and attempts to interpret its meaning for humanity. Since the revolution in scientific thought stimulated by Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), however, poetry of this sort has been less likely to underline a received article of Christian or other transcendent faith. Frost’s poem is a questioning one in the form of an Italian sonnet whose octave, or first eight-line unit, is balanced against the closing six-line sestet.
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The speaker comes upon “a dimpled spider, fat and white” that has captured and killed a moth against the background of a white flower called a heal-all. The octave describes the scene, which is all “in white” (to quote a phrase not in the poem that stood as Frost’s original title for it). The description is ironic: The disarmingly attractive spider and the moth are “characters of death and blight/ Mixed ready to begin the morning right.” The spider is also compared to a snowflake, and the very name of the flower suggests the opposite of “death and blight.”
The sestet asks three questions, the third of which seems to answer the first two but is then qualified in the last line: Why did the killing take place on a white flower, what brought the spider and moth together, and was the event part of a sinister design? The final line of the sonnet then implies another question: Can such a small event of nature properly be considered as part of any design, either good or evil?
The answers to these questions hinge on the meaning of “design.” Before Darwin, the idea that the processes of nature, both generally and in particular, reveal a great design of the Creator prevailed in the Western world; overwhelmingly, this design was viewed as benevolent. A sparrow “shall not fall on the ground without your Father,” Jesus told his disciples. A few dissidents might have argued that God was malign or that the devil had gained control, but even they would take for granted a designing intelligence.
Nineteenth century scientific thought changed all this by dispensing with design and the necessity of a designer in favor of concepts such as Darwin’s “natural selection.” Frost’s poem shows the influence of the late nineteenth century American philosopher William James, who, while rejecting the simple Christian affirmation of a designer involved in every detail of creation, sought to retain the concept of design as a “seeing force” rather than a “blind force.” Frost appears to be mocking the idea of design in “small” events such as the confrontation of an individual spider and moth, but he characteristically leaves his most important questions unanswered.
The pattern of the poem is that of a traditional sonnet: descriptive octave followed by reflective sestet. Because of what he has been taught, the observer of the spider’s triumph both sees and reflects differently from a person of any earlier time. The poem dramatizes the impossibility of maintaining a view of God and nature similar to the one that satisfied people of past generations. At the same time, it embodies the difficulty of reinterpreting nature in a satisfactory way.