Design by Robert Frost | Summary, Analysis, Theme, Line by Line Analysis

Design by Robert Frost | Summary, Analysis, Theme, Line by Line Analysis

Design by Robert Frost

Design, one of the most difficult poems of Robert Frost, was published in A Further Range (1936). According to a critic, “this is a poem of finding evil in innocence, a song of experience, though the voice is hardly that of Blake’s child-like singer.”

Design by Robert Frost Theme

The poet has drawn the picture of a fat and white dimpled spider which had caught hold of a moth on a flower called white heal-all. To put the theme in the words of Louis Untermeyer, “The poet has a special sympathy for the persistent firefly and the patient spider. He does not laugh at the emulating flies, who try to imitate stars, even though they can’t sustain the art”. The “The heal-all” is a common country plant supposed to have healing properties: it is almost always blue in colour. The poet has found a strange still, attained to it a white spinner, “a snow-drop spider”, holding a white moth, completing a pattern of whiteness. Here, in the world of chaos and darkness, there is purpose and design, “if (the poet speculates whimsically) design govern in a thing so small.”

Design by Robert Frost Summary

In the poem, Design Frost encounters a curious scene in his rural setting. He then witnesses a spider killing an unsuspecting moth atop a strange heal-all – an ordinary flower. However, rare is the color of flowers, spiders and moths. All of these are white, and mostly white. Their colors separate them from the rest of the picture, nature’s most desirable greens, browns and blues. The poet highlights elements in white that he believes are the agents of this terrible “conception”. Overall, the poem questions whether the events of nature are governed by an intelligent force – and whether that force is malevolent. Frost reveals what he believes, to some extent, in choosing to describe the scene as “death and plague” and “the composition of the witch’s broth.” Furthermore, his choice to use a sonnet for this poem shows that Frost chose to be ruled by someone else’s design.

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Design Line by Line Analysis

Dimpled– spotted, marked with small hollow in the surface of skin.

On a white heal all…a moth-They spider had caught hold of an insect on a flower called white heal-all, which suggests purity and safety, although the colour echoes the whiteness of the swollen spider.

Assorted characters of death and blight-The line is somewhat ambiguous and may be explained as “a mixed bunch of actors or diverse representative signs.”

Mixed ready to begin ……right– The words ‘right’ here hovers on a pun for rite,’ as the poet mixes a brew worthy of the Weird Sisters, Shakespeare’s most evil images of Evil.

Like the ingredients……… broth– The comparison reminds us of the different spell-creating drugs and materials prepared in the form of a soup by the Witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

broth– soup.

ingredients– components parts of a mixture.

A snow-drop spider……froth – “For sweet sour, smiling awfulness snow-drop spider’ looks unsurpassable, until we come to the almost obscenely horrible ‘a flower like froth.’ ‘Snow-drop spider’ ‘and flower-like froth’. Just as ‘dead wings’ and ‘paper kite’ in the following line, evoke the image of the foul ingredients for the soup.

And dead wings.. kite– ‘dead’ and ‘wings’ and ‘paper kite’ are in themselves highly “contradictory and awful.”

What had that flower…white– This question sounds like ordinary annoyance at a fact that does to fit in, and the white flower begins to look like black when out of place.

The wayside blue..heal-all? This line, as well as the following one, expresses the idea of the arbitrariness of our guilt, the truth that Original Sin is only Original Accident, so far as the creatures of this word are concerned. In the world, ‘heal-all’, we have the presentation of sad, ironic and literal life: it healed all, but it could not heal itself.

What brought the height– The term ‘Kindred’ suggests as if the sweet flower and the spider had contrived to reach exactly that height, steered-drew forth, brought forth.

Then steered the white moth…night– The line attempts at suggesting the air of mystery which envelops the entire story of spider and moth. ‘Steered’ is a very awful word indeed.

What but design…to appall?– It is a mere statement and generalization and comes to us as a relief after what has been presented earlier in the poem.

to appall-to terrify, to dismay.

If design govern in…no smell-This concluding line of the sonnet has been consciously made ‘hypothetical’, a possibly contradicted shadow. According to the interpretation of Brower, “It may after all be absurd to see so much in a flower, a moth and a spider. But the “if” stands out oddly because of the pause for the loss of a syllable.”

Design by Robert Frost Analysis

Design is, beyond doubt, a difficult and ambiguous poem. It is rich in symbolic interpretation. In the words of Thompson, “For various and complicated reasons, his Frost’s fluctuating and ambiguous view-point nocks, at times, any complacent notions concerning a benevolent design in nature. One of his sonnets which has occasionally been singled out for particular praise is a dark study in-white, ambiguously entitled Design:

“I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,

On a white heal-all, holding up a moth

Like a white piece of rigid stain cloth

Assorted characters of death and blight

Mixed ready to begin the morning right,

Like the ingredients of a witches’s broth-

A Snow-drop spider, a flower like 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.”

Taken out of context, the sonnet might seem to carry overtones more ominous than the context of Frost’s other poems actually permits. By contrast, if this sonnet is considered in relation to the other poems, it suggests not so much a mood of depressed brooding over “the design of darkness to appall” but rather a grim pleasure in using such a peculiar exemplar for challenging and upsetting the smug assurance of complacent orthodox belief concerning who steers what, where, and how. Yet this sonnet resists even that much reduction. For Frost, the attempt to see clearly, and from all sides, requires a willingness to confront the frightening and the appalling even in its darkest forms.

The poem, presented in its entirety as above, follows the strict structure of a good sonnet. Speaking of its artistic excellences, Reuben A. Brower remarks, “Few poems by Frost or more perfectly and surely composed, few where the figure in the mind and in the ear are better matched.” There are “the daring use of tone end-rhymes”, “the surprising and apt use of the many double and triple stresses on successive syllables”, and the weighing of rhythm evoking seemingly slight and charming images.” The sonnet is the expression of the poet’s surprise over the mysterious existence of the world surrounded by omens and evil designs.

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