Student Question

Does "Design" by Robert Frost relate to the theme of Modernism?

Quick answer:

"Design" by Robert Frost does indeed have a modern theme that relates to the Modernist movement. The modern theme is that nature can be terrifying. And the modernist technique that Frost uses to illustrate this theme is vivid imagery, such as his description of the "dimpled" and "fat" spider.

Expert Answers

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Modernist writers often presented the world in which we live as a pretty terrible place. They comprehensively abandoned the valorization of nature so beloved of the Romantics to embrace a much more brutally realistic picture of the world around us, "nature, red in tooth and claw," as Tennyson put it in "In Memoriam, A. H. H."

This ruthlessly unsentimental attitude to nature is much in evidence in "Design" by Robert Frost. The distinguished literary critic Lionel Trilling once described Frost's universe as terrifying, and after reading "Design" one can see exactly what he meant. It's difficult to imagine a more un-Romantic evocation of nature than that presented here.

In this poem, Frost suggests that nature and the universe have been designed by a malevolent intelligence. How else to account for the existence of predators like the "fat," "dimpled" spider?

The argument from "Design" has been used by successive generations of theists to provide evidence of God's existence. But in good Modernist fashion Frost turns that argument upside-down to get at what he believes to be the underlying truth beneath life's glittering surface.

He does this through the use of powerful imagery, another important feature of Modernism. As well as the vivid evocation of the spider, there's also a description of the moth it's just killed as a white piece of rigid satin cloth.

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