The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 518 words.)