The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 518

“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.

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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.

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 543

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...

(The entire section contains 1197 words.)

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