‘Design’ is one of Robert Frost’s more contentious poems. It was written as a response to the traditional depiction of God as a benevolent, all-powerful being who created humankind in his own image.
The poet published the definitive version of this poem in 1936 in A Further Range. In ‘Design,’ Frost rethought the concept of “design” and produced the poem in order to present what he saw as another side of the equation. That of a malevolent, all-powerful being might be responsible for the combination of ingredients. The poem speaks on themes of religion, life, and death.
The poem begins with the speaker discussing a spider and moth he found on the top of a flower. They came together there, as if kindred spirits, in order for the spider to eat the moth. He wonders over this convergence and equates it to a witch’s brew. There are a few light-hearted lines in which the speaker plays with potion-related imagery. He then transitions in the sestet to discuss design, creation, more broadly, God.
You can read the full poem here.
‘Design’ by Robert Frost is a fourteen-line sonnet that is separated into two stanzas. The first is an octet, meaning it contains eight lines (usually further divided into quatrains, sets of four lines). The second stanza is a sestet or set of six lines. Depending on the structure of the sonnet, Shakespearean or Petrarchan, the divisions can become more intricate. In the case of ‘Design’ Frost has followed the Petrarchan rhyme scheme. It follows a pattern of ABBAABBA ACAACC.
Another element that marks ‘Design’ as a Petrarchan sonnet is the turn or volta. This is a shift in the poem that can be seen through a change in narrator, belief or setting. It can even consist of an answer to a question posed in the first half. In Shakespearean sonnets, the turn occurs between the twelfth and thirteenth lines, aka before the concluding rhyming couplet. But, in Petrarchan, the turn normally appears between the octet and sestet. This is also the case for Frost’s ‘Design’.
The rhythm is mainly iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM.
Within ‘Design’ frost makes use of several poetic techniques. These include alliteration, enjambment, juxtaposition, and caesura. Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. It appears a number of times in this piece, but a few examples include “flower” and “froth” in line seven of the first stanza and “design” and “darkness” in line five of the second stanza.
Juxtaposition appears when two contrasting things are placed near one another in order to emphasize that contrast. A poet usually does this in order to speak on a larger theme of their text or make an important point about the differences between these two things. For instance, the moth is described as “white…stain cloth,” (white is generally a symbol of purity or innocence) in line three of the first stanza, and the following reference to “death and blight”.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half. Sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. There is a perfect example of this technique in the second line of the poem as well as in the seventh.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For instance, the transition between the fourth and fifth lines of the first stanza.
Analysis of Design
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
Assorted characters of death and blight
In the first lines of ‘Design’, the speaker begins by describing a spider he found. It appeared “fat” and “dimpled”. These words, especially dimpled, are generally associated with human beings. They help to create a clear picture in the reader’s mind of the shape and size of the spider the speaker found. The next lines provide more detail. The spider was white and Frost describes through a simile, how it was holding a “moth / Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth”.
These two creatures the speaker came upon at once are an example, he says, of the “characters of death and blight”. The fourth line of this stanza is enjambed, encouraging a reader to jump quickly to the fifth in order to conclude the phrase.
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
When the fifth line begins, Frost picks up the rhythm of ‘Design,’ making use of alliteration and internal rhyme. These lines have a musical quality to them and therefore reference, to an even greater extent, a potion. “death and blight” are the two ingredients needed to “begin the morning right”. They are, he states, the parts of a “witches’ broth”.
The next two lines return to the image of the spider on the flower with the moth. The moth is “carried like a paper kite” by the spider. Its dead wings are of obvious interest to the speaker who referred to them in the first stanza as “stain” and in the second as “a paper kite”.
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small.
The second stanza provides a different structure for considering life, death, intelligent design, and the intentions of that intelligence. Frost ends ‘Design’ with a series of questions. They do not provide the reader with any answers, as Frost did not have any. The first and second have to do with the position of the spider on the flower. Frost wants to understand how it’s possible that the world came together so perfectly in order to steer the “white moth thither in the night” so that it might end up in the spider’s mouth.
The last two lines, a rhyming couplet, consider the implications of a dark design and how this kind of creator might invent in order to “appall”. Perhaps, Frost is saying, the designer of the world created it in order to disgust and inspire fear.