Discussion Topic

Examining Nature and Imagery in Robert Frost's "Design" and Other Poems


In Robert Frost's "Design," nature and imagery play crucial roles in exploring themes of existence and fate. The poem uses vivid descriptions of a spider, a moth, and a flower to delve into the complexities of life and the seeming randomness of the natural world. Frost's other poems similarly employ rich imagery to reflect on human experiences and the environment.

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What parallels exist between the natural scene and its image in Robert Frost's "Design"?

Various parallels exist between the “real” situation Robert Frost depicts in his poem “Design” and the ways the speaker presents that situation in the poem. The speaker claims to have seen a decayed white flower bearing a large white spider holding a rigid white moth. The conjunction of all these images of whiteness suggests an uncanny “design” in the natural scene. It is as if somehow these three examples of whiteness came together not by mere accident but by some sort of larger purpose. Moreover, each of the three white things the speaker observes seem associated, in some way, with death: the normally blue flower is losing its color; the spider ehas killed the moth; and the moth is clearly dead. Thus the natural scene seems doubly designed – not only because of the three examples of whiteness but also because of the three connotations linking whiteness with death.

The speaker’s presentation of this apparent design is itself designed very carefully.  The poem is a Petrarchan sonnet, consisting of an octave (the first eight lines) and a sestet (the last six lines).  The octave follows the standard Petrarchan rhyme scheme for an octave: a/b/b/a  a/b/b/a.  However, instead of structuring the sestet in some standard Petrarchan pattern (such as c/d/e  c/d/e), the speaker imposes a highly unusual and fairly difficult design on the last six lines: a/c/a/c/c.  The final two lines are reminiscent of the final couplet of a Shakespearean sonnet, and so the speaker has complicated his design still further.  Ultimately, only three different rhyme sounds are heard in this poem – a fact that is entirely appropriate to the three different images (of flower, spider, and moth) on which the poem focuses.

The poem reveals even more intricacy of design upon closer examination.  Thus, the first two lines of the octave introduce the spider, the flower, and the moth (in that order).  Similarly, the last two lines of the octave also describe the spider, the flower, and the moth (again in that order).  It is as if, in a poem about design, the speaker tries to impose very clear and even somewhat inflexible designs upon his own work of art.

Thus, the sestet also shows extremely close attention to design. Once more the three figures – flower, spider, and moth – are mentioned, but while the octave had made statements, the sestet is mainly given over to questions: three of them, as a matter of fact.  Frost thus uses the sestet as a kind of commentary on the octave – a kind of design that was common in Petrarchan sonnets.  The octave presents the observations of the speaker; the sestet presents questions that seem designed to provoke thought from the reader.

The final question, interestingly enough, functions as a kind of answer to the first two. It is as if the first two questions relate to the three figures the poem has discussed (the flower, spider, and moth), while the third question is a response to the first two queries.  The first two questions ask what brought these three figures together; the third and final question provides a sort of answer:

What but design of darkness to appall? --

If design govern in a thing so small. (13-14)

Notice, though, how the final line -- cast in the form of a statement, opens up yet another question. Thus, in all the ways already demonstrated, the poem itself demonstrates that design can indeed "govern . . . a thing so small."

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How does "Design" compare and contrast with another Robert Frost poem about nature?

You can compare this poem to "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," which is set in nature: a dark, snowy night in the woods near a farmhouse.   

Both poems use sensory imagery, which Frost uses every effectively.  For example, there is the "fat, dimpled spider" in "Design."  Other images are the flower, which is "like a froth," and the moth, which is "a white piece of rigid satin cloth."  In "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," Frost uses such images as the horse shaking the bells around his neck to signify that it is ready to move on and is wondering why the narrator has stopped in the snowy night.  He also uses the sensory images like "The only other sound's the sweep/Of easy wind and downy flake." 

Both poems also contain a narrator who has stopped in nature to observe a particular scene:  a spider that has killed a moth in "Design" and a farmhouse in the woods on a snowy evening in "Stopping by Woods..."  

They are different in that they have different themes.  In "Design," Frost mocks the notion that every single thing that happens is by design, like the spider that catches the moth.  In "Stopping by Woods...," Frost addresses self-reflection as the narrator of the poem has stopped in the woods while on a journey to reflect about something unknown.  

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