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Robert Frost’s "Design"

Robert Frost remains America's most noted and beloved poet. His classic works are widely anthologized and studied in the nation's schools.

Introduction and Text of "Design"

Robert Frost's "Design" is an American, or Innovative, sonnet. It follows the Petrarchan form with an octave whose rime scheme is traditional, ABBAABBA, and a sestet, but the rime scheme of the sestet is quite innovative, ACAACC, with the final two lines echoing the couplet of the Elizabethan, or Shakespearean, sonnet.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Design

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth—
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth—
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.

Reading of "Design"

Commentary

The speaker of Frost's "Design" concocts a "conspiracy of death" as he muses on an odd happenstance.

First Quatrain in the Octave: An Astonished Speaker

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth—
Assorted characters of death and blight

The speaker reports, somewhat astonished, that he has happened upon a white spider that is grasping and holding aloft a white moth and both were situated on a white heal-all. The speaker then describes the event as "assorted characters of death and blight" because of the eerie feeling such an unlikely sight has given him.

Indeed, the speaker likens the moth to "a white piece of rigid satin cloth," an image that serves the poet well in both rime and kinship to death, as caskets are often lined with a satin-finish material. The speaker’s astonishment leads him immediately to assign "death and blight" to the situation. His shock at such a sight renders him amazed, as he begins to contemplate the possible meanings of such a collection of natural objects together.

Second Quatrain in the Octave: Odd Mixture

Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth—
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

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The so-called mixture of albino spider, moth, and flower, the speaker claims, was ready to begin the morning right. He then colorfully likens them to the ingredients of a witches brew. Again, the speaker richly describes the ingredients of this "witches' broth" as "a snow-drop spider, a flower like froth, and dead wings like a paper kite."

What the speaker must be thinking as starting a "morning right" leads him to concentrate squarely on the characters he has just encountered. He wonders what they all have to do with one another, and what kind of system would allow such a conglomeration to come together function. It is not everyday that three albinos appear together in a natural scene. It would be unusual, indeed, if the speaker were not somewhat taken aback by what he is experiencing.

First Tercet in the Sestet: The Philosophy of Astonishment

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,

In the first tercet of the sestet, the speaker turns philosophical. His astonishment at happening upon such an uncanny sight leads him to question the appropriateness, even the naturalness, of it all and what one thing has to do with another. For example, the speaker asks, why would a customarily blue flower suddenly take on the color of white?—not the normal hue for the "heal-all." And he explains that the heal-all is usually blue, and he calls it innocent—not a part of a witches' brew, as it is now appearing before him.

The speaker then poses the question, asking what caused this like-colored spider to come to this same place. Spiders are not usually white, just as the heal-all is not naturally white. Why would these albinos just happen to appear together? He can only continue to describe the strange situation and wonder about it, as he muses on what motivations might have prompted these quite unlikely entities to be found together.

Second Tercet in the Sestet: A Puzzling Calumny

Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.

Finally, the speaker wonders what might have "steered" the white moth to come there in the night—if it were, in fact, "steered" or otherwise led to that place. The speaker begins to muse on the likelihood of there being some pattern or "design" that has heralded this odd happenstance. He begins to wonder if this bizarre occurrence could have been done with the express intention of appalling the poor soul who might have happened upon it. A negative spin can always be employed in what may appear to be a negative situation.

But then on the other hand, the speaker does not want to take too seriously that some design has conspired to such calumny; thus, he just sloughs it off by sticking the notion in an "if" clause and labeling the whole thing small.

The speaker has dramatized a small, ultimately inconsequential experience. But his musing will leave his readers wandering in the same bewildered state through which the speaker has mentally traveled.

The machinations of natural phenomena that humanity thinks it knows so well turns out to spring surprises on the minds and hearts of individuals who are observant. And the observant who allow their minds to cogitate and their hearts to muse on certain events will always find that nature holds an abundance of puzzling and ofter surprising happenings.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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