Explication of "Design" by Robert Frost

Peter G Smith, ENG242, June 23, 2004

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by Robert Frost
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.

           One popular argument against Charles Darwin's naturalistic view of origins in biology has historically been an "argument from design." In the decades before electron microscopes, biochemistry, and DNA, this argument focused primarily on how well everything in nature seemed to fit together - as if designed to be that way. Naturalists often countered this argument from design by turning it on its head. Robert Frost has taken this approach in his poem "Design." The supposed evidence for design, he proposes, cuts both ways. If there is a Designer of life, then that Designer is malevolent and treacherous, not benevolent and benign. The Designer creates both good and evil, or perhaps "good" that is really evil if one looks close enough. The nature of the Designer, then, is contradictory. Frost argues his point in the poem by observing an ironic scene in nature that has every hint of design but also appalling darkness. The mastery of Frost's "Design" is that its meaning is enhanced by its form, its metrics and rhyme, and its imagery and connotations.

     The poem is a sonnet, but the sonnet form does not, at the surface level, fit the nature of the poem's meaning. Instead of a pleasant or uplifting song, we are given shock and doubt expressed through a serious-minded reflection on the question of origins. While the Intelligent Design proponents sing to the refrain of "All Things Bright and Beautiful," the poet here pens a sonnet to "All Things Dark and Sinister." In this sense, the use of the sonnet form does fit the poem's meaning because it is ironic. What is expected to be "good" is really "evil." It is additionally ironic because the sonnet is a highly structured form - that is, designed, but this particular sonnet questions the very notion of design.

     Frost also makes changes to the traditional sonnet form that work to throw the reader off balance and echo the bewilderment and eventual shock of the poet. First, the typical pattern of a question in the octave followed by an answer in the sestet is reversed. The octave in Frost's poem is an answer or, more closely, an observation, and the succeeding sestet becomes the question. The typical rhyme pattern of a sonnet is also changed. While the "abbaabba" pattern is preserved in the octave, the "cdecde" pattern in the sestet has been unexpectedly altered to "acaacc." Again, the reader is thrown off balance by the unexpected.

     In manipulating the meter and rhythm, Frost has again employed poetic structure effectively to enhance the ironic meaning of his poem. Like the contradicting duality in what Frost perceives to be the nature of a presumed Designer, the poem also alternates between two contrasting tones. Bewilderment and shock are intermixed with lyrical, almost whimsical, lines. Frost shifts the tone by changing the meter from quick and light to deliberate and weighty. In particular, lines with a light iambic pentameter are interrupted by lines that begin with a spondaic foot before returning to either iambic or trochaic. The adjacently-stressed syllables in the spondaic lines slow down the rhythm and change the tone. They also place emphasis on those particular words. For example, the first line, "I found a dimpled spider, fat and white," is iambic pentameter, but it is followed immediately by two lines that begin with the more ponderous spondaic element: "On a white heal-all…" and "Like a white piece…" both shift the tone as well as emphasize the words. Other spondaic examples include "snow-drop spider," "dead wings carried," and "wayside blue."

     This ironic duality in the meter is continued up until the very last line of the poem, where the disturbing undertone surfaces fully and becomes cynical scoffing. The pleasant surprise found earlier in the iambic lines gives way to bewilderment, which in turn leads to shock. In the final line, "If design govern in a thing so small," the tone is mocking and derisive. Frost seems to be indicting the proponents of design as purposely overlooking or ignoring small things, such as the scene in question, when forming their arguments. The line also holds a note of sarcasm as a missing syllable between "design" and "govern" breaks the trochaic meter. The reader must stumble while trying to say the two words together. But this same line may also be a sad reflection on the pathos of the alternative's implication: that we are nothing more than a "thing so small" lost in a vast, meaningless universe that is ungoverned by design.

     Along with the duality in the meter, Frost also presents a contrasting duality in assonance. There are only two rhymed vowel sounds in his sonnet. The first word set uses vowel sounds that rhyme with "eye" (evidence for design). The second set, which includes words rhyming with "broth" as well as "small," contains the vowel sound of the first syllable in the word "awful" (the irony of design). This dual assonance pattern intentionally matches the pattern found in the shifting meters, thus reinforcing the distinction. More to the point, the "eye" words match the iambic lines while the "awful" words match the irregular, spondaic lines.

     The imagery and connotations used throughout the poem extend the structural irony into the interpretive and literal levels of the poem. This irony coincides with the poet's assessment of the Designer. The spider first appears as "dimpled" and "fat," as opposed to, say, "pocked" and "swollen." The connotation evokes an image of a charming baby, not a terrifying monster. Later, though, this same spider is "kindred" to the flower because of its uncanny whiteness. The moth looks like a "rigid satin cloth," which is ironic because "satin" implies something smooth and sensuous, whereas "rigid" implies stiffness or, more directly, rigor mortis. The spider holds up this rigid moth in a ritualistic gesture of ominous import, and the scene is full of death and menacing danger, which one would not expect with pretty flowers and baby-like spiders. In line five, the hopeful optimism of beginning a new day is intruded upon by a subtle play in words: "right" sounds too similar to "rite" to be mere coincidence. Again, the image is of a ritual killing.

     Continuing to look at line five, it sounds like a silly advertisement jingle for pancake mix, complete with an upbeat iambic meter: "Mixed ready to begin the morning right." Yet the ingredients in this breakfast treat are "death and blight." The imagery is ironically dark and transforms the jingle into mockery of the one - the Designer - who is concocting such a mixture. The flower, as one of the ingredients, is "like a froth." In another context, "froth" would not have a negative connotation - such as the froth crowning a café latté from Starbuck's Coffee. But, in the context of a witch's broth, as it is in this poem, "froth" stirs up an image of vile, smelly things being boiled. The final ingredient appears in line eight: "And dead wings carried like a paper kite." Frost presents a pair of contradictory images in this line. Moth wings and "kites" suggest flight. A kite is a kind of bird, and it is also a child's plaything. All of this happy, innocent flying, though, is abruptly ceased with the inclusion of "dead" and "paper." Both of these words connote lifeless immobility, and they ruin the once-pleasant imagery.

     This transformation from beauty and innocence to ugliness is carried forward in the second stanza with the "blue and innocent" aspects of the flower being pushed aside in favor of blank whiteness. The poet begins to question the eerie absence of color in this albino scene. Neither the flower, the spider, nor the moth should have anything to do with being white. Yet they are! In fact, the spider is described as having a "snow-drop" hue. With such a hue, one would expect it to look pristine, pure, and unpolluted, but it clearly is none of these.

     Who or what is to blame for this appalling scene? Again, the literal reading is complemented with ironic imagery and connotation. The poet questions if the culprit could be anything but the Designer: "What but design of darkness to appall?" It is too coincidental to the poet that all three characters in the scene are so utterly white. There must be a Designer behind it all. Frost uses words that connote intentional actions: "mixed," "brought," "steered," and "govern." There is, furthermore, a sinister connotation with the word "steered" - as opposed to "guided" - that implies coercion. The mention of a kite also implies design because a kite is a toy that is assembled before usage.

     More direct indictments of a contradictory, malevolent Designer appear in several other images in the poem. First, it is significant that Frost selected the "heal-all" as the flower in the scene. This flower has a superstitious link to the metaphysical with its asserted powers of healing. Yet, in this poem the heal-all is associated with something ironic and out-of-place. The Designer is likewise connected to the witch - an evil being - who mixes the assorted ingredients into a diabolical broth. The impression is that design in nature is not unlike the process of making a wicked soup. To further the connection, the ingredients in the witch's broth are likened to "death and blight." This imagery is reminiscent of the plagues brought onto the Egyptians during the Biblical Exodus.

     The final, and most obvious, ironic image appears in line thirteen with the phrase "design of darkness." Here "design" and "darkness" are explicitly coupled together, and the alliteration of the "d" sound links the two closer together. The alliteration also evokes a sense of gloomy finality with its abrupt sound. There is an irony between all the whiteness of design throughout the poem and the "darkness" here associated with that design. With this contrast in color, the contradiction in the design imagery is complete.

     Each level of "Design" resonates with the theme of irony and contradiction. Structurally, the sonnet form is used ironically, and the meter alterations are matched by similarly contrasting assonance. The imagery and connotations throughout the poem likewise enhance the irony. They also solidify the connection made between design and ironic contradiction. While the poem is unparalleled in its poetic mastery, Frost's specious musing hardly refutes the argument from design. The foundation for his position is that if we are to see design in everything, then we must be honest enough to indeed look at every little thing. In the poem, however, Frost neglects to do just that! He does look at a little thing and finds evidence for design in it, but he neglects to account for the second half of the equation put forth in the design argument: that there is a curse on nature which was precipitated by mankind's fall into sin. This point may seem didactic, but it is relevant to the interpretation of Frost's poem because the Curse cannot be separated from any discussion of the Designer. The curse shifts the cause of "darkness" away from "design" and toward a subsequent corruption of that design. Perhaps the greatest irony of all in the poem is that Frost has effectively pointed out how thoroughly the original design has been corrupted.

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