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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 543 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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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.

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