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How does the structure of the poem "Design" contribute to its themes?

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The structure of the poem "Design" is that of a Petrarchan sonnet, with a traditional rhyme scheme in the first eight-line stanza and a rhyming couplet in the second six-line stanza. Its rhyming lines and iambic pentameter create a deceptively innocent tone that turns dark as Frost examines the theme of design or divine force. In the second half of the sonnet, he questions if things occur by design or if they happen by chance.

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The poem “Design” by Robert Frost examines the killing of a moth by a spider on a flower. It is a Petrarchan sonnet with two stanzas: an octet with a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA and a sestet. This poem’s sestet departs from the usual structure of the Petrarchan sonnet, however, in that its rhyme scheme is ACAACC; it ends with a rhyming couplet like a Shakespearean sonnet. Its meter is iambic pentameter.

Frost purposely designs the structure of this poem to reflect its themes of manipulation and the existential question: does divine force or chance control nature?

He begins the first stanza with the sing-song rhythm of iambic pentameter and the straightforward rhyme scheme of a children’s song. Even the opening images—a “dimpled spider, fat and white,” a white flower, and a moth like satin cloth—seem cute and harmless. Gradually, though, Frost reveals a darker tone as the reader realizes that the poet is describing a death scene, with a spider holding a lifeless moth on the ironically named “heal-all” flower. In fact, all three items are

Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth.

“Blight” implies sickness, like the spider’s bloated body, the moth’s stiff corpse, and the flower that is supposed to be blue, not white. Frost’s allusion to the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth further emphasizes the macabre nature of the scene. He ends this deceptively upbeat stanza with contradictory light-dark images of a “snow-drop spider,” a frothy flower, and dead wings like a child’s kite.

A shift or turn in a sonnet’s tone or meaning is a volta. This shift at the beginning of the sestet in “Design” marks a change from casual observations to existential questions. Frost delves into deeper thought and inquiry as to how these creatures all converged.

What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?

Was the spider and moth’s meeting on the flower just a coincidence? Or did a larger force compel the spider to climb up the flower? What “steered” or caused the moth to fly into the spider’s waiting trap? Did a greater force manipulate time in order for everything to be at the same place (in a small space like the top of a flower) at the same time (and at night)? Frost poses these questions and tries to answer them in his poem’s final couplet:

What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.

A malevolent force or “design of darkness” must be the cause; it manipulates objects and creatures to an astounding (“appall”) degree. God or some divine choreographer seems to control everything down to minutiae. The “design” or explanation behind why things happen the way they do, however, is not definite. Its existence is a big “if.” Otherwise, everything is governed by chance.

As the designer of this poem, Frost manipulates the reader’s experience through his choice of structure, images, and tone.

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