Themes and Meanings

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Since he alludes to the New Testament book of Matthew elsewhere in his poetry, Frost certainly had read Matthew 10:29: “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.” He was familiar, therefore, with the tradition of an omniscient and omnipotent God. He surely had read Job’s impassioned questioning of God’s purpose. In addition, Frost taught the philosophy of William James to students at Plymouth Normal School in New Hampshire, and in James’s Pragmatism is the statement: “Let me pass to a very cognate philosophic problem, the question of design in nature.” This text may or may not have served as Frost’s source for the poem. In any event, Frost, like poets that preceded and followed him, was skeptical about the extent to which the Creator was benign, and he wondered about the degree of his involvement with his creations.

For example, William Blake in “The Tyger” (1794) wonders whether the same God could create both the fierce and the gentle; he asks the tiger, “Did he who made the lamb make thee?” In Thomas Hardy’s “An August Midnight” (1899), a spider symbolizes evil in God’s design. In Robert Lowell’s “Mr. Edwards and the Spider” (1946), the black widow represents the damned soul. On the other hand, in Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider” (1891), the creature is benign.

Frost is expressing a sense of bewilderment felt by many religious people at one time or another: How does one reconcile death and evil with a benevolent deity? Fundamental to this problem is the extent to which God assumes a monitoring role—whether God watches over the details of the world or is concerned only with the grand design. Does Frost’s bleak scene of death in “Design” call Matthew into question? Moreover, Genesis 1:31 says, “God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” Does Frost intend the sonnet “Design,” a meditation upon a dark reality, to refute this judgment? More likely, given the prevalence of questions in the sestet and the “If” at the start of the last line, he is unready to reach definitive conclusions. The questions alone are unsettling enough.

“Design” is one of Robert Frost’s greatest poems, a structural and substantive masterpiece. His deliberate departures from sonnet traditions, his richly allusive language, and the sly ironic touches complement one another, and they demonstrate that an artist sometimes attains a degree of perfection that is lacking in nature.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access