The Poem

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“Design” is an atypical Petrarchan (or Italian) sonnet, because though its octave (the first eight lines) sets forth a situation, and the sestet (the final six lines) reacts to it, Robert Frost’s theme is not love, and his sestet concludes with a couplet—more common to the Shakespearean (Elizabethan) sonnet. Further, though the octave rhyme scheme is the Petrarchan abbaabba, the sestet is a rare acaacc, a three-rhyme pattern that is unusually restrictive for a poem in English, which is a difficult rhyming language. Since the structure of the poem departs from tradition, the reader may wonder about the appropriateness of “Design” as its title; perhaps Frost is mocking, or at least questioning, the very notion of order.

The literal content of the sonnet seems straightforward. While wandering about the countryside, the first-person narrator, apparently Frost himself, is on a hill and happens to see a flower—a “heal-all”—on which a spider sits with a dead moth. The spider is fat (probably from having consumed a previous victim), dimpled, and white. The flower, also white, is “like a froth,” and the moth is said to be similar to “a white piece of rigid satin cloth.” The three objects presumably are dead, like “the ingredients of a witches’ broth.” The lilting rhythm of the opening five words and the description of the spider as dimpled are deceptive, for the lightness of touch they convey is quickly overtaken by the subsequent details and their pervasive focus upon death. The octave, therefore, does not merely develop the sonnet’s substantive base; by toying with the reader, it also establishes a mood of uncertainty, even foreboding, and raises questions about what is to come in the second part.

The reader of a sonnet normally can expect commentary, perhaps even resolution, in a sestet. Such is not the case in the last six lines of Frost’s poem, which consist of three questions and a closing speculative statement. In the first four lines, a perplexed narrator articulates the same matters that bother the reader, whose surrogate he is. He wonders, for instance, about the incongruous scene, asking how its components—flower, spider, moth—happened to come together at that particular place and time. What “steered” them there, he asks—and for what purpose or “design”? In the closing couplet, the speaker reiterates his concern: Did chance bring about the meeting, or did some power orchestrate the event? Indeed, would a supreme being even bother with such matters?

By raising unanswered questions in the sestet, Frost leaves the reader with a sense of unease, incompleteness. The incongruity between the confident clarity of the title and subsequent descriptions and questions is heightened by Frost’s emphatic use of the word “design” twice in the last two lines. So whereas the title initially exudes a forthright assertiveness suggestive of order, once one reads through the poem, the title “Design” takes on ironic, maybe even skeptical overtones. Like so much else in the Frost canon, this is a linguistically simple poem—75 percent of the words are monosyllabic—that plumbs the depths of the human condition.

Forms and Devices

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Frost begins “Design” deceptively in that he describes the dead spider as dimpled, for the term more often is used about a baby and usually has pleasant connotations. A dimple, though, is simply an indentation, so Frost may be literal in his description of a fat, shriveled creature whose color has faded.

The heal-all, more commonly known as self-heal, is a violet-blue flower reputed to have medicinal powers, but here it is white, similarly drained of its color in death. The third...

(This entire section contains 543 words.)

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object in the poem is a moth, also white, like the rigid satin cloth that typically lines a coffin. Further, to emphasize death, Frost surely chose the adjective “rigid” to suggest rigor mortis. The narrator also links the three things with blight, a condition of destructive decay. In the light of all this, how can the objects be said to be ready to begin the morning “right,” or correctly? Maybe Frost is punning, leading the reader astray, as he does at the start of the sonnet. (Perhaps he intends “rite,” as in a ritual.) The next line, with its allusion to a witches’ broth, an essential component of an unholy ceremony, suggests this possibility.

The octave concludes with a variation on its opening, a list of the three objects, now joined as ingredients of an unsavory stew. Frost first calls attention to the spider’s whiteness by describing it as a snow drop, an early-blooming flower. The next part of the series—“a flower like a froth”—could provide a link either to the snow-drop or to the white heal-all, but why does Frost say “froth”? Simply because the white flowers resemble foam? His choice of language may be more purposeful, with “froth” referring to a salivary foam indicative of disease. Similarly evoking various interpretations is the comparison of the dead moth’s wings to a paper kite. In addition to denoting a toy that wafts in a breeze, the word “kite” refers to a bird of prey, and white kites are used in Asian funeral rites. In sum, Frost’s octave incrementally develops an unmistakable image pattern of death, destruction, disease, and decay.

In the first few lines of the sestet, there is a temporary shift in style and tone, attributable to such words as “wayside,” “innocent,” and “kindred,” all of which have positive connotations. Having moved toward serenity with his first two questions, Frost attempts his answer by raising a third one: “What but design of darkness to appall?” In a poem dominated by an albino death scene, the word “darkness” is jarring and signals an abrupt shift in tone. This shift is reinforced by the last word, which is the most heavily accented of the seven words in the line. “Appall” means to dismay or to fill with consternation, either of which sense fits the context, and it derives from Latin and Middle English words which refer to growing pale or faint, both of which meanings are relevant. They suggest that the startled narrator and reader might become as white as the dead trio. Immediately upon raising the dreadful possibility of some malevolent force having been responsible for the albino tableau, Frost ends the poem inconclusively. “If,” the first word of his last line, warrants the most emphasis.

Bibliography

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Bloom, Harold, ed. Robert Frost. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.

Burnshaw, Stanley. Robert Frost Himself. New York: George Braziller, 1986.

Faggen, Robert. Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.

Galbraith, Astrid. New England as Poetic Landscape: Henry David Thoreau and Robert Frost. New York: Peter Lang, 2003.

Gerber, Philip L. Robert Frost. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982.

Lathem, Edward Connery. Robert Frost: A Biography. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Robert Frost: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

Poirier, Richard. Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Potter, James L. The Robert Frost Handbook. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980.

Pritchard, William H. Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Thompson, Lawrance Roger, and R. H. Winnick. Robert Frost: A Biography. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982.

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