blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

On "Design"

Randall Jarrell

This is the Argument from Design with a vengeance; is the terrible negative from which the eighteenth century's Kodak picture (With its Having wonderful time. Wish you were here on the margin) had to be printed. If a watch, then a watch-maker; if a diabolical machine, then a diabolical mechanic—Frost uses exactly the logic that has always been used. And this little albino catastrophe is too whitely catastrophic to be accidental, too impossibly unlikely ever to be a coincidence: accident, chance, statistics, natural selection are helpless to account for such "designed terror and heartbreak, such an awful symbolic perversion of the innocent being of the world. Frost's details are so diabolically good that it seems criminal to leave some unremarked; but notice how dimpled, fat, and white (all but one; all but one) come from our regular description of any baby; notice how the heal-all, because of its name, it the one flower in all the world picked to be the altar for this Devil's Mass; notice how holding up the moth brings something ritual and hieratic, a ghostly, ghastly formality, to this priest and its sacrificial victim; notice how terrible to the fingers, how full of the stilling rigor of death, that white piece of rigid satin cloth is. And assorted characters of death and blight is, like so many things in this poem, sharply ambiguous: a mixed bunch of actors or diverse representative signs. The tone of the phrase assorted characters of death and blight is beautifully developed in the ironic Breakfast-Club-calisthenics, Radio-Kitchen heartiness of mixed ready to begin the morning right (which assures us, so unreassuringly, that this isn't any sort of Strindberg Spook Sonata, but hard fact), and concludes in the ingredients of the witch's broth, giving the soup a sort of cuddly shimmer that the cauldron in Macbeth never had; the broth, even, is brought to life—we realize that witch's broth is broth, to be supped with a long spoon. For sweet-sour, smiling awfulness snow-drop spider looks unsurpassable, until we come to the almost obscenely horrible (even the mouth-gestures are utilized) a flower like froth; this always used to seem to me the case of the absolutely inescapable effect, until a student of mine said that you could tell how beautiful the flower was because the poet compared it to froth; when I said to her, "But—but—but what does froth remind you of?" looking desperately into her blue eyes, she replied: "Fudge. It reminds me of making fudge."

And then, in the victim's own little line, how contradictory and awful everything is: dead wings carried like a paper kite! The dead and the Wings work back and forth on each other heart-breakingly, and the contradictory pathos of the carried wings is exceeded by that of the matter-of-fact conversion into what has never lived, into a shouldered toy, of the ended life. What had that flower to do with being white,/The wayside blue and innocent heal-al?expresses as well as anything ever has the arbitrariness of our guilt, the fact that Original Sin is only Original Accident, so far as the creatures of this world are concerned. And the wayside blue and innocent heal-all is, down to the least sound, the last helpless, yearning, trailing-away sigh of too-precarious innocence, of a potentiality cancelled out almost before it began to exist. The way- side makes it universal, commonplace, and somehow dearer to us; the blue brings in all the associations of the normal negated color (the poem is likely to remind the reader of Melville's chapter on the White- ness of the Whale, just as Frost may have been reminded); and the innocent is given a peculiar force and life by this context, just as the name heal-all comes to sad, ironic, literal life: it healed all, itself it could not heal. The kindred is very moving in its half-forgiving ambiguity; and the Biblical thither in the night and the conclusive steered (with its careful echoes of "To a Water-Fowl" and a thousand sermons) are very moving and very serious in their condemnation, their awful mystery. The partly ambiguous, summing-up What but design of darkness to appall comes as something taken for granted, a relief almost, in its mere statement and generalization, after the almost unbearable actuality and particularity of what has come before. And then this whole appalling categorical machinery of reasoning-out, of conviction, of condemnation—it reminds one of the machine in The Penal Colony—is suddenly made merely hypothetical, a possible contradicted shadow, by one off-hand last-minute qualification: one that dismisses it, but that dismisses it only for a possibility still more terrifying, a whole new random, statistical, astronomical abyss underlying the diabolical machinery of the poem. "In large things, macroscopic phenomena of some real importance," the poem says, "the classical mechanics of design probably does operate—though in reverse, so far as the old Argument from Design is concerned; but these little things, things of no real importance, microscopic phenomena like a flower or moth or man or planet or solar system [we have so indissolubly identified ourselves with the moth and flower and spider that we cannot treat our own nature and importance, which theirs symbolize, as fundamentally different from theirs], are governed by the purely statistical laws of quantum mechanics, of random distribution, are they not?" I have given this statement of "what the poem says"—it says much more—an exaggeratedly physical, scientific form because both a metaphorically and literally astronomical view of things is so common, and so unremarked-on, in Frost. This poem, I think most people will admit, makes Pascal's "eternal silence of those infinite spaces" seem the hush between the movements of a cantata.

from Poetry and the Age (Knopf, 1953). Copyright © 1953 by Randall Jarrell

Reuben A. Brower

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. At first we hear the cheerfully observant walker on back-country roads: ‘I found a dimpled . . .’ The iambic lilt adds a tone of pleasant surprise: ‘I found a dimpled darling’—‘Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet!’ But in ‘spider’ the voice betrays itself, and in ‘fat’ and ‘white’ the dimpled creature appears less charming. On a small scale the first line, like the whole poem, builds up a joke in tone, rhythm, and image that grows into a ‘joke’ of another sort.

In the octet the joking discovery develops gradually through a series of contradictory pictures. ‘A white heal-all’ suggests purity and safety, though the color echoes the white of the swollen spider. A satin-white moth has its charm, too, a party-going creature poised like Wordsworth’s butterfly on its flower; but ‘rigid’ is too frozen, too easily reminiscent of rigor mortis or the stiff shining satin of a coffin. In the aside of the next three lines, the speaker gives away his joke, but he does it jokingly, again partly by tricks of rhythm. First there is the very correct iambic on line 4,

Assorted characters of death and blight . . .

in exactly ten syllables, every other one of which must be stressed, a little as in doggerel. The plain truth of the statement takes on a cheerful sing-song quality, an effect increased in the next line by reversing the stress and omitting the short in ‘Mixed ready.’ The tone now becomes quite jaunty, but ‘right’ hovers on a pun for ‘rite,’ as the poet mixes a brew worthy of the Weird Sisters, Shakespeare’s most evil images of evil. The adding of unstressed syllables speeds up and lightens the next line to soften the ugliness of what is being said:

Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth . . .

And with

A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,

more oblique joking is resumed in images of springtime freshness (‘snow drop,’ ‘flower-like,’ we hear). But the spider is there, and the fragility of ‘froth’ hardly conceals the link with venom. A surface of elegant gaiety is kept up, however, through symmetry of sound, as o’s and I’s, alliterated syllables, and apparent compounds are balanced in each half of the verse. Again we are brought up short with ‘dead wings,’ and if kites are fun, a ‘kite’ is also a bird of prey, and ‘a paper kite’ is another image of death-like rigidity.

The sextet brings the expected change in tone, now no longer easily observing and half-singing though in mockery, but self-questioning and increasingly serious. The first question (‘What had the flower to do . . .’) sounds like ordinary annoyance at a face that doesn’t fit in, though ‘white’ out a place begins to seem like ‘black.’ The next question (‘What brought the kindred spider . . .’), in a voice of lost innocence, brings a new note and a harsher irony with ‘kindred’ (as if the sweet flower and the spider had conspired to arrive at exactly that height and place). ‘Steered’ is more sinister, and with the last question ironic puzzlement turns into vision:

What but design of darkness to appall?—

Alliteration picks out salient impressions to give older theological and Emersonian arguments a reverse twist—‘Design, yes—but for evil.’ But the natural theologian pauses—he is only asking, not asserting—and takes a backward step:

If design govern in a thing so small.

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 reversal of stress and because of the pause for the loss of a syllable,

If design || govern . . .

There is a glimmer of a further joke: ‘If design govern in anything at all . . .’—the subjunctive and a second reversal of stress alert us to the doubt. The soothingly humorous hesitation points to something many readers may find less agreeable than design of darkness, to no order whatever.

Few poems by Frost are more perfectly and surely composed, few where the figure in the mind and in the ear are better matched. Consider, for example, the daring use of the same end-rhymes, half the total number on a single sound. Though the repetitions in the octet can be matched in other poets, the surprise comes with the rhyme in line 9, which is picked up again in 'height' and 'night.' This persistent echo might be merely curious if it didn't come in so many words that in idea and image play with the disturbing discovery of the poem: words and things that ought to mean 'good' turn out to be 'evil.' The equations of rhyme and of i-sounds within lines (ten of them!) link the ingredients of this witches' broth in insidious confusions (white=blight=right(rite)=height=night). Notice too the surprising and apt use of the many double and triple stresses on successive syllables, from 'White heal-all' through 'snow-drop spider' to ‘white moth thither.' The weighting of rhythmic emphasis in these words, many of them evoking seemingly slight and charming images, directs attention to possible ugliness in ‘things so small.’

from The Poetry of Robert Frost: Constellations of Intention. New York: Oxford UP, 1963. Copyright © 1963 by Reuben A. Brower

George Montiero

Lecturing in 1834 on the theme of man’s relationship to the globe, Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked

The snail is not more accurately adjusted to his shell than man to the globe he inhabits, that not only a perfect symmetry is discoverable in his limbs and senses between the head and the foot, between the hand and the eye, the head and the lungs,—but an equal symmetry and proportion is discoverable between him and the air, the mountains, the tides, the moon, and the sun. I am not impressed by solitary marks of designing wisdom; I am thrilled with delight by the choral harmony of the whole. Design! It is all design. It is all beauty. It is all astonishment.

With this notion Emerson started hares in New England that have run from his time well into the twentieth century. In Emerson’s day Oliver Wendell Holmes produced his variation on the theme, seeing it in terms of what might be called Platonic evolutionism in his poem "The Chambered Nautilus." Early in this century Frost took up Emerson’s notion in two versions of the poem "Design" and had serious fun with it for a decade.

Published rather inauspiciously in the same year as T.S. Eliot’s "The Waste Land," Frost’s sonnet "Design" has weathered the years successfully. Its reputation has grown to such an extent that the poem, like Eliot’s, is now considered one of the century’s most explosive poetic statements on the metaphysics of darkness. Indeed, historically "Design" can be located somewhere between the visionary expanse of "The Waste Land" and the mind-stretching speculations of Herman Melville’s chapter "The Whiteness of the Whale" in Moby-Dick (1851). In paradigm, "Design" expresses the perplexing fears that respond to evidence that (1) human existence continues without supportive design and ultimate purpose and (2) human existence is subject to a design of unmitigated natural evil. In its details the poem appears to sustain both of these complementary interpretations.

"Design" is Frost’s most carefully shaped investigation of the darker implications of the classical argument from design. The poem did not spring into being fully formed after a single bout with the Muse. In 1912, apparently to put the poem on record as well as to try it on a sympathetic reader, Frost forwarded an early version to an old friend, calling it a sonnet for his "’Moth and Butterfly’ book." Although he did not choose to publish this early version, the manuscript copy preserved among the papers of Susan Hayes Ward enables us to trace Frost’s philosophical-aesthetic development as he reworked the draft and rethought his ideas over a period of ten years.

Frost’s extant manuscript version of 1912 bears the title "In White," which, though it indicates the poem’s principal image and motif, does not have the thematic resonance of the simpler and more direct later title, "Design." A more explicit, if far less effective, title for the later version of the poem might combine the two "Design in White." Still, this title, arty and somewhat arch, would compromise Frost’s theme. Rather, concerned with any and all designs which would foster poetic and philosophic resonance, Frost revised his poem to make it more precise, so that each image would be appropriate and every word functional.

In White

A dented spider like a snow drop white
On a white Heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of lifeless satin cloth--
Saw ever curious eye so strange a sight?--
Portent in little, assorted death and blight
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth?—
The beady spider, the flower like a froth,
And the moth carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The blue prunella every child’s delight.
What brought the kindred spider to that height?
(Make we no thesis of the miller’s plight.)
What but design of darkness and of night?
Design, design! Do I use the word aright?

This early version of the poem is to be compared with the final version published first in 1922 and later gathered by Frost into his sixth volume of poetry, A Further Range (1936):

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 wmgs 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.

Frost’s revisions turn the poem to narrative and away from unadorned lyric, thereby enhancing the mystery that surrounds the incident he wishes to describe. In removing his personal experience to the past, the poet is able to suggest as well that he has been brooding on the meaning of the tableau of spider, moth, and ritual death which he has observed, even though he has failed to reach a conclusive answer (at least for himself) on the question of design. The introduction of the poet’s personal voice (as subject; into the first line, moreover, turns the spider into the object of sight and contemplation. It gives the poet more prominence than he had in the manuscript version, which begins with a sentence fragment (no verb) in apposition to the noun "sight" in the fourth line.

Little survives intact from one version of the poem to the other. Notably, only the ninth line of the early version—"What had that flower to do with being white"—survives without change in "Design." Lines 2, 6, and 11 are largely repeated, with changes only in capitalization or punctuation at the end of the line. The remaining ten lines, however, offer substantive changes, which must be taken up line by line.

The simile in the first line, "like a snow drop white," which is purely and neutrally descriptive, disappears along with another descriptive word, "dented." In their place Frost offers three adjectives: "dimpled," "fat," and "white." The first two are unexpectedly appropriate for this murderous spider. Cleverly placed in the poem, these terms more often describe a baby than an insect. By replacing neutrally descriptive terms with terms that would normally appear in another context in connection with a different sentiment, Frost both announces his theme and reveals that his approach is basically ironic. In line 3 the moth, described as "a white piece of lifeless cloth" becomes "rigid satin cloth." "Lifeless" is only vaguely descriptive of the moth’s state; but it does not at all accurately reflect the tableau of the spider holding up the moth. The moth may in fact be "lifeless," but the poem is more accurately descriptive when it compares the moth with "rigid" cloth. Hovering over this image is the hint of rigor mortis and the satin fabric which customarily lines the inside of coffins.

Line 4 in the manuscript version is rather limp, lifeless. The semi-rhetorical question "Saw ever curious eye so strange a sight?" seriously deflects the central argument of the poem. In the final version Frost moves the second half of the original fifth line, "assorted death and blight," to line 4 and extends it to "assorted characters of death and blight," thereby introducing the important metaphor of kitchen domesticity that he will pursue through line 7. So, too, does he decide to drop the first phrase of line 5 ("Portent in little")—this time, I would suggest, because "portent" is too potent at this point. Line 6 stays almost intact but no longer asks a question. Indeed, the two questions which dominate the octave in the manuscript version are strategically dropped, so that the only questions come in the sestet closing the poem. Lines 4 through 7 are intended, then, to suggest kitchens, cakes, and cookies ("Assorted," "ingredients," and "Mixed ready")—all as if drummed up by advertisers "to begin the morning right." The only sour note is that the whole thing resembles "the ingredients of a witches’ broth." Still, it is "broth" and not "brew" (as we might expect in everyday witchcraft); "broth" echoes the culinary metaphor.

The single change in line 7 turns "beady spider" into "snow-drop spider," reinstating the adjective which Frost had discarded from his original first line. At this point the earlier poem was still fundamentally descriptive, but something was needed, apparently to keep the idea of coldness and death before us. "Snow-drop" accomplishes this aim. "Beady," however, serves another purpose. The word, less than precisely descriptive, is morally loaded. A seemingly less neutral word would keep the poem from becoming at all moralistic. In the last line of the octave "moth" turns into "dead wings," but the simile "like a paper kite" is happily retained. The simile returns us to the implicitly "childlike" description of the spider in the opening line. "Dead wings," on the other hand, moves toward precision, for it is not the "moth" in its entirety that looks like "a paper kite" but only its "dead wings." Furthermore, both "wings" and "kite" suggest the idea of flight, the image of white "dead wings" moves toward paradox.

The ninth line ("What had that flower to do with being white,") remains intact, this much about his basic poem Frost had been sure of all along. But if the appositive clause which constitutes the tenth line ("The blue prunella every child’s delight") adds the new information that the heal-all is also known as the prunella; it nevertheless adds nothing to the argument of the poem. Indeed, because the content of the lines is not at all functional except as a bit of incidental information, it can do no more than disrupt the poem’s discourse. On the other hand, repetition of the fact that it is a "heal-all" despite its not being blue (as are most heal-alls) pushes the argument a step further. The next line is substantially the same. But the twelfth line of the manuscript version is dropped completely, and fittingly so."Make we not thesis of the miller’s plight)" is wasteful and repetitive, seeming to exist only for the final word ("plight"), which maintains the pattern of the same end rhyme throughout the six lines of the sestet. In replacing the entire line, Frost chooses to deepen the question he asks about the tableau he has witnessed. Not only does he ask "What brought the kindred spider to that height" but also what "Then steered the white moth thither in the night?" (italics added). What power, then, actually "steered" the moth (white) in the darkness of "night" to a heal-all which is preternaturally "white"? Rather than the somewhat disingenuous admonition that avoids making a thesis out of this tableau, Frost chooses to extend the mystery of the "witches’ broth" that he has ostensibly witnessed.

In the penultimate line of the poem the first five words are retained ("What but design of darkness"), but the last three words ("and of night") are revised: "to appall." In the original, "of night" merely repeats the idea in the phrase "of darkness." There is a relatively pointless, if harmless, repetition of meaning. But the phrase "darkness to appall" suggests the appalling effect that the close conjunction of two ideas—"darkness" and "design"—might well have. Moreover, "appall" is a particularly suitable word, in that it suggests both a specific color or the lack of color (pallor) and death (pall).

Because it, too, is inconclusive and somewhat wasteful, the last line of the manuscript poem gives way to a conditional clause in the final version: "Design, design! Do I use the word aright?" is crudely rhythmic, but the simple device of ending a poem with a disingenuous question does little to resolve the poem formally. On the other hand, to end the poem with the tentative clause "if design govern in a thing so small" offers thematic resolution even as it enhances poetic resonance. "Govern" develops from "steered," of course, which in turn grows out of "brought " The effect is cumulative.

A comparison of the earlier and the definitive versions of "Design" helps to define the poet’s final intention; it remained fundamentally consistent. From version to version Frost worked to clarify his idea that the philosophical argument from design was endemically ironic. Both the first published version of the poem (1922) and the manuscript version (1912) are in sonnet form. Despite internal revisions and the reshaping of several lines, the overall poetic form remained the same over the years. That the poem was conceived in the form of a sonnet, I would

propose, is the poet’s final irony, for the strict formal design which characterizes the sonnet apes and mimes the internal argument of the poem. It is true of "Design," as it is, according to Frost, of all his poems: "every single one of the poems has its design symbol." The difficulty, though, is that "there are some people who want to know what’s eating you." Whether what is eating at the readers of "Design" was also eating the poet is not revealed. But here are the main questions. Does the same guiding power, the steering force, which works through the tableau of spider, moth, and stylized death, operate through the poetic process as well? After so much whiteness, have we experienced, after all, still another variant of that scriptural blackness of darkness which fascinated so many American writers, from Poe to Hemingway? These questions—good ones, I think—are no more rhetorical than the question which closes Frost’s chilling sonnet.

There is a footnote to the story of "In White" and "Design." It involves Frost’s dealings with the Independent, particularly with Susan Hayes Ward, the literary editor of the publication edited by her brother William Hayes Ward. She was one of the people he later singled out as having had so much to do with his career that he would name her as one of those "to whom I owe my existence." In 1894 Frost sent the poem "My Butterfly" to the Independent because two years earlier he had recognized the journal as a place where poetry might be published. The discovery was, he revealed, one of the two most crucial poetic experiences in his life as a student. (The other was his discovery of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury.) Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant quotes Frost.

I happened into the old library and found on the magazine rack a copy of the Independent, with a poem on the front page. It was a sort of threnody called "Seaward," by Richard Hovey, a friend of Bliss Carman and a celebrated Dartmouth graduate. The subject was the death of Thomas William Parsons, translator of Dante’s Inferno, friend of Longfellow.

This experience gave me my very first revelation that a publication existed, anywhere in my native land, that was a vehicle for the publication of poetry. There was even an editorial about this poem, which I read with rapt amaze. So when later I had a poem, "My Butterfly," I of course sent it to the Independent.

The issue of the Independent containing Hovey’s poem appeared on November 17, 1892.

Almost two decades later, on about January 15, 1912, Frost sent Susan Hayes Ward a copy of "In White." By this time she was no longer associated with the Independent and was, in fact, retired. (She died in 1916.) Therefore, why did Frost choose to send her this particular poem? My guess is that it had something to do with poems he had read in the Independent years earlier, in an issue published on December 15, 1892, four weeks after the issue publishing the Hovey poem that had so favorably impressed the young would-be poet then studying at Dartmouth. In this, largely a Christmas issue, Frost would have read a twenty-two-line poem by Julian Hawthorne

As when a traveler, toiling o’er a hight
    Heaped of huge bowlders, all at random hurled,
    Like fragments of a ruined world,
Whose desolation doth the spirit affright—
Rebels at seeming chaos come again,
And longs for level reaches of the plain,
    So I with hardship spent,
    And foiled of mine intent,
Complained that life was less than kind,
That silver clouds were leaden-lined.
And chance, not justice, did o’er mortal fortunes reign.

But when the traveler to the valley came,
    And, turning, gazed at that dim-towering hight,
    Glorified now by sunset light,—
Lo! the confusion that had won his blame
Assumed sublime and awful grace—
The mighty semblance of a God-like face
    Even, so as I look back
    Upon my weary track,
I see its hostile features change,
By some divine enchantment strange,
Till God’s design through all, in all, at last I trace.

Frost’s ‘My Butterfly," written two years later, would also touch on the "awful grace" of God’s power and design: "It seemed God let thee flutter from his gentle clasp. / Then, fearful he had let thee win / Too far beyond him to be gathered in, / Snatched thee, o’er-eager, with ungentle grasp." Along with Julian Hawthorne’s "Design," however, the Independent for December 15, 1892, published a forty-line poem by Lewis Morris entitled "From an American Sermon." I shall quote not the entire poem but only two stanzas from the middle and the two at the end

So every human soul
Set here betwixt its twin eternities
Stands open to heaven, ay, rolls on to doom
Mid opposite mysteries.

And tho indeed it seem
By narrow walls of circumstance confined,
Shut from Heaven’s face, closed to all vital airs,
Is open to God’s wind
No soul so cold or calm
But underneath it burns the infernal fire
No state so mean, so vile,
It may not to the Heaven of heavens aspire.

Above, beneath, around,
Dread destinies encompass great and small,
One Will, one Hand, one dread all-seeing Eye
Surveys and governs all.

The second of these stanzas Frost would echo dramatically (with a hint from Emily Dickinson) in "My Butterfly" "Then, when I was distraught / And could not speak, / Sidelong, full on my cheek, / What should that reckless zephyr fling / But the wild touch of your dye-dusty wing!" The last stanza of Morris’s poem was later echoed in "Design." It is curious that when Frost revised "In White" he changed the poem’s last line from "Design, design! Do I use the word aright?" to "If design govern in a thing so small," thereby echoing the last lines of both Hawthorne’s and Morris’s poems. Small wonder, then, that, when Frost came upon William James’s naturalistic and anecdotal critique of the argument from design, he was well primed for it—from reading Hawthorne and Morris no less than from writing "My Butterfly."

One last point is noteworthy. When Frost sent his trenchant criticism of the argument from design ("In White) to his old benefactress, Susan Hayes Ward—especially since she was by then no longer in a position to help him with publication—was he not formally, if belatedly, answering poetic voices heard nearly two decades earlier (a settling of the score, so to speak)?

 Jeffrey Meyers

"Design," a perfectly executed sonnet, is Frost's greatest poem. The title refers to the idea, as William James writes in Pragmatism (1907), that "God's existence has from time immemorial been held to be proved by certain natural facts.... Such mutual fitting of things diverse in origin argued design, it was held; and the designer was always treated as a man-loving deity." The idea of a benign deity is mentioned, for example, in Matthew 10: 29, which teaches that God oversees every aspect of the world, even unto the fate of the most common bird: "Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father" knowing it. The idea of a perfectly created world also appears in Genesis 1: 31, where "God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good." In "The Tyger" (1794) Blake admired the power of a God who could create, in his divine order, the most fierce and gentle hearts, and rhetorically asked: 'Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the Lamb make thee?"

To poets, the spider could represent different purposes in God's design. Whitman's "A Noiseless Patient Spider" is benign; but the Black Widow in Robert Lowell's "Mr. Edwards and the Spider" is a symbol of the damned soul. Frost, like Hardy in "An August Midnight," uses the spider to emphasize the evil aspect of God's design and offers, as Randall Jarrell notes, an "Argument from Design with a vengeance.... If a diabolical machine, then a diabolical mechanic ... in this little Albino catastrophe."

In "Design" the normally black spider and blue heal-all (the ironic name of the medicinal flower) are both wickedly white -- a play on Elinor's maiden name. The spider, fattened by a previous victim, holds a dead white moth like a rigid piece of satin cloth (or a rigid waxy corpse) in a coffin. These three characters of death and blight, like the elements of a witches' broth, are ready to begin the morning right -- or evil rite. Frost asks what evil force made the blue flower white and what malign power brought the spider into deadly conjunction with the moth. His dark answer suggests that this awful albino death-scene refutes Genesis, St. Matthew and the comforting belief recounted by Blake and William James: "What but design of darkness to appall? -- / If design govern in a thing so small." In the horrible but inevitable logic of "Design" Frost replaces God's design with the artist's.

From Robert Frost: A Biography. Copyright © 1996 by Jeffrey Meyers.

Jay Parini

A Furtber Range contains "Design," arguably one of the best sonnets ever written by an American poet. It is a frightening poem, one that confronts the dire possibility that the universe is not only godless but that God is evil. In keeping with the Imagest tendencies in modern poetry, Frost centers the poem on a picture . . . .

The white spider — already a freak of nature - has landed on a white flower with a white moth in its grip. None of these three elements is normally white, which gives each of them an abstract eeriness. The fact that these elements are "mixed ready to begin the morning right, / Like the ingredients of a witches' broth --" is deeply ironic: indeed, the language parodies the language of breakfast cereal ads. What we get here is an image that combines death and blight. There is nothing life-enhancing about anything in this piece of nature.

In the sestet of the sonnet, where issues raised in the octet are traditionally resolved, Frost simply offers three haunting and unanswerable questions:

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.

The poem is in many ways the key to Frost's universe, a poem so perfect in its execution that one cannot imagine a word placed otherwise. Frost's tone is deftly controlled throughout, with the poet's serious point balanced nicely by the parodic language of the first stanza. Ever aware of the linguistic roots of words, Frost is inwardly winking when he uses the word "rigid" to modify "satin cloth." Likewise, at the end, he is certainly aware (as a former Latin teacher) that the word "appall" means "to make white" in its root sense. And Frost is delighting in the way he can wring an unexpected turn of meaning from the Classical argument from design.

From "Robert Frost" in The Columbia History of American poetry. Ed. Jay Parini. Copyright © 1993 by Columbia University Press.

Richard Gray

Frost uses the rigidity of the sonnet form to present a formal philosophical problem. We are introduced, in the course of the octave, to 'Assorted characters of death and blight', three things the narrator happened to come across once: 'a dimpled spider, fat and white', a white flower, and, held up by the flower, 'a moth / Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth.' The three are introduced separately, assembled in synthesis to demonstrate the incongruity of their relationship, and then re-described in the last two lines of the octave for emphasis:

A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

Up to this point, the scientist-poet has only permitted himself the emotional shock of the elements presented for his examination and he accepts them as specimens at random. In the sestet, however, he tries to solve the problems they pose and, as he does so, the tension suddenly breaks, along with the rhyme-scheme. In a series of negatives and outraged rhetorical questions, he demands reasons for the strange combinations of existence. What is the 'design' behind all this, he asks. All he can summon up, by way of an answer, is the following:

What but design of darkness to appal? --
If design govern in a thing so small.

Far from solving the problem, this conclusion only exacerbates it. For the alternatives are either that the 'design' reflects some vast malevolent joke, or that the concept of 'design' is absurdly irrelevant -- in which case, the process of questioning in the sestet is itself called into question. This, in effect, is the irresolution of 'For Once, Then, Something' returned with a vengeance, since on the borders of it now hovers a sense of fear. It is bad enough to believe that we are condemned to abide amidst uncertainties; it is even worse to suspect that those uncertainties harbour danger, that the universe is not only unknowable but treacherous.

However, like so much in Frost's poetry, this remains only a suspicion. Fear lurks beneath the surface of a poem like this, certainly: but, in other poems, Frost's playfulness, his willingness to entertain all kinds of doubts and possibilities leads him in the contrary direction -- not to transcendence of facts, perhaps, but to a wondering, joyful apprehension of their potential, to the sense that nature might after all be whispering secret, sympathetic messages to us.

From American Poetry of the Twentieth Century. Copyright © 1990 by Longman Group UK, Limited.

Richard Poirier

"Design" is one of the best poems in A Further Range, giving evidence, as we have heard Frost say of himself in 1959, of a "new way to write." And yet the poem was actually first printed American Poetry 1922, A Miscellany. What changed between 1922 and 1936 was not the poem but Frost's feelings about it, his decision, at last, to lay full claim to it. But even in 1950 he can say, with remarkable casualness, that he had forgotten it until "someone turned it up and began to get it said about and I put it in the book" (Cook, p., 126).

But what exactly does he mean by "it"? There are in fact two remarkably different versions of "it," the earlier of which goes back even before 1922 - a poem called "In White," which he sent to Susan Ward with a letter dated January 15, 1912. At the time of composition Frost was teaching William James's Psychology ("Briefer Course") and Talks to Teachers on Psychology to his students at Plymouth Normal School in New Hampshire. He was also reading Pragmatism. Along with the works of Emerson and Thoreau, Pragmatism was a source of metaphors for him and for certain exercises of mind in his poetry. In Lecture Three, "Some Metaphysical Problems Pragmatically Considered," Frost came upon a passage that is the likely source for the poem we know as "Design" and for the earlier version called "In White." I will quote first the extensive passage from James and then both versions of the poem:

Let me pass to a very cognate philosophic problem, the question of design in nature. God's existence has from time immemorial been held to be proved by certain natural facts. Many facts appear as if expressly designed in view of one another. Thus the woodpecker's bill, tongue, feet, tail, etc., fit him wondrously for a world of trees, with grubs hid in their bark to feed upon. The parts of our eye fit the laws of light to perfection, leading its rays to a sharp picture on our retina. Such mutual fitting of things diverse in origin argued design, it was held; and the designer was always treated as a man-loving deity.

The first step in these arguments was to prove that the design existed. Nature was ransacked for results obtained through separate things being co-adapted. Our eyes, for instance, originate in intrauterine darkness, and the light originates in the sun, yet see how they fit each other. They are evidently made for each other. Vision is the end designed, light and eyes the separate means devised for its attainment.

It is strange, considering how unanimously our ancestors felt the force of this argument, to see how little it counts for since the triumph of the Darwinian theory. Darwin opened our minds to the power of chance-happenings to bring forth 'fit' results if only they have time to add themselves together. He showed the enormous waste of nature in producing results that get destroyed because of their unfitness. He also emphasized the number of adaptations which, if designed, would argue an evil rather than a good designer. Here, all depends upon the point of view. To the grub under the bark the exquisite fitness of the woodpecker's organism to extract him would certainly argue a diabolical designer.

Theologians have by this time stretched their minds so as to embrace the darwinian facts, and yet to interpret them as still showing divine purpose. It used to be a question of purpose against mechanism, of one or the other. It was as if one should say "My shoes are evidently designed to fit my feet, hence it is impossible that they should have been produced by machinery." We know that they are both: they are made by a machinery itself designed to fit the feet with shoes. Theology need only stretch similarly the designs of God. As the aim of a football-team is not merely to get the ball to a certain goal (if that were so, they would simply get up on some dark night and place it there), but to get it there by a fixed machinery of conditions -- the game's rules and the opposing players; so the aim of God is not merely, let us say, to make men and to save them, but rather to get this done through the sole agency of nature's vast machinery. Without nature's stupendous laws and counterforces, man's creation and perfection, we might suppose, would be too insipid achievements for God to have proposed them.

This saves the form of the design-argument at the expense of its old easy human content. The designer is no longer the old man-like deity. His designs have grown so vast as to be incomprehensible to us humans. The what of them so overwhelms us that to establish the mere that of a designer for them becomes of very little consequence in comparison. We can with difficulty comprehend the character of a cosmic mind whose purposes are fully revealed by the strange mixture of goods and evils that we find in this actual world's particulars. Or rather we cannot by any possibility comprehend it. The mere word 'design' by itself has no consequences and explains nothing. It is the barrenest of principles. The old question of whether there is design is idle. The real question is what is the world, whether or not it have a designer - and that can be revealed only by the study of all nature's particulars.

Remember that no matter what nature may have produced or may be producing, the means must necessarily have been adequate, must have been fitted to that production. The argument from fitness to design would consequently always apply, whatever were the product's character. The recent Mont-Pelée eruption, for example, required all previous history to produce that exact combination of ruined houses, human and animal corpses, sunken ships, volcanic ashes, etc., in just that one hideous configuration of positions. France had to be a nation and colonize Martinique. Our country had to exist and send our ships there. If God aimed at just that result, the means by which the centuries bent their influences towards it, showed exquisite intelligence. And so of any state of things whatever, either in nature or in history, which we find actually realized. For the parts of things must always make some definite resultant, be it chaotic or harmonious. When we look at what has actually come, the conditions must always appear perfectly designed to ensure it. We can always say, therefore, in any conceivable world, of any conceivable character, that the whole cosmic machinery may have been designed to produce it.

Pragmatically, then, the abstract word 'design' is a blank cartridge. It carries no consequences, it does no execution. What design? and what designer? are the only serious questions, and the study of facts is the only way of getting even approximate answers. Meanwhile, pending the slow answer from facts, any one who insists that there is a designer and who is sure he is a divine one, gets a certain pragmatic benefit from the term - the same, in fact, which we saw that the terms God, Spirit, or the Absolute, yield us. 'Design,' worthless tho it be as a mere rationalistic principle set above or behind things for our admiration, becomes, if our faith concretes it into something theistic, a term of promise. Returning with it into experience, we gain a more confiding outlook on the future. If not a blind force but a seeing force runs things, we may reasonably expect better issues. This vague confidence in the future is the sole pragmatic meaning at present discernible in the terms design and designer. But if cosmic confidence is right not wrong, better not worse, that is a most important meaning. That much at least of possible 'truth' the terms will then have in them.

In White

A dented spider like a snowdrop white
On a white Heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of lifeless satin cloth--
Saw ever curious eye so strange a sight?
Portent in little, assorted death and blight
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth?
The beady spider, the flower like a froth,
And the moth carried like a paper kite.
What had that flower to do with being white,
The blue Brunella every child's delight?
What brought the kindred spider to that height
(Make we no thesis of the miller's plight.)
What but design of darkness and of night?
Design, design! Do I use the word aright?

[Poirier prints "Design" here]

James's extensive influence can be located both in particular images - the statement about eyes, for instance, might have something to do with the last stanza of "All Revelation" ("Eyes seeking the response of eyes") - and in Frost's general disposition. The idea that creation might prove insipid if it did not work against opposition and counterforce (as in getting a ball over a goal line) is similar to Frost's notion of the process of a poem in "The Figure a Poem Makes" or his contention that "Every single poem written regular is a symbol small or great of the way the will has to pitch into commitments deeper and deeper" ("The Constant Symbol"). With respect to "In White" and "Design," the very clumsiness of the first indicates Frost's studious dependency on the passage from James. The line "Saw ever curious eye," for instance (whose? when? where? why?), can escape ridicule only by appeal to some antecedent authority. Such authority lies not, I think, in emblem poems, though "In White" does seem rhetorically to court that form; it lies instead in James's description of the inveterate thrust of investigation and "curiosity." "Nature was ransacked for results," he tells us, adding that "the real question is what is the world, whether or not it have a designer - and that can be revealed only by the study of all nature's particulars." So, too, with the unfortunate word "thesis" in line 12. It carries a nervous reassurance as if to someone checking up on his coverage of the subject, and so does the school-boy display of verbal-philosophical scrupulousness in the last line: "Design, design! Do I use the word aright?"

The later poem is freed of such sophomoric concern about correct usage or responsible modes of perception. By contrast to "In White," "Design" is a rather playful poem, much closer to the charmingly confident willingness in James to allow for alternate or conflicting possibilities. There is less worry about whether the word "design" is used "aright" because the speaker is his own man. If the word is not used "aright," then the responsibility lies in some collusion between reality and the perception of it. As in "The Most of It," reality appears to form itself in shapes that one "finds"; it sends signals that offer, according to how you read them, more than you can cope with and less than you need.

The same is true, of course, for the "design" of a "thing so small" as a poem, particularly a sonnet like this one. Understandably, the poem ends with two questions. The first, while grammatically in the form of a question ("What but design of darkness to appall?"), is more assertive than the second, which is grammatically a conditional clause ("If design govern in a thing so small"). The first question is pronounced by two heavily accented syllables on either end ("What but . . . appall"). And yet the very emphasis on "appall" brings with it a demand for attention which, as alternative meanings begin to emerge, dissolves the fright initially induced by the word. It is related to the word "pale" and suggests therefore that in our fright we might become as white as the horrid little cluster of things we are looking at. "Appall" also suggests "pale" in yet other ways, however. A "pale" can be a spike (is that an image of how the spider is "holding up a moth"?) and, most importantly, a "pale" can be a slat in a fence, as every farmer knows. "Darkness" has fenced in or enclosed these "assorted characters." It has given them a "design." Thus, an extended and potentially self-canceling reading of the line would be "What but design of darkness to" . . . design. This would be an extraordinarily witty way to gather up and transform the meanings being groped for in the clumsy ending of the original: "Design, design! Do I use the word aright?" As a tautology the line would also give a still more problematic and sardonic turn to the last line of the poem. A design whose purpose is only to "design" cannot be said to "govern" much of anything, large or small.

A reading of this kind is assisted by James's observation about the woodpecker and the grub, an observation full of that ingratiating, warm-hearted sarcasm of his (so like Emerson of the later and shorter essay "Nature"), when he is exposing the effrontery of human schematizations:"to the grub under the bark the exquisite fitness of the woodpecker's organism to extract him

would certainly argue a diabolic designer." The word "appall" is therefore marvelously apt not only because it can end up meaning "design" but because in doing so it maintains its connotations of terror. The implications of design are "appalling" in every sense if we try to infer from any assortment of things the presence of something or someone, a Creator who "governs." Melville and the "whiteness" of his whale are a glimmering presence here, much as in "For Once, Then, Something," a poem written in 1917, between "In White" and "Design": "What was that whiteness? / Truth? a pebble of quartz? For once, then, something." In this poem, written in hendecasyllabics -- Frost's affectionate nod to Catullus -- there is, as in "Design," the enticement of significances simultaneously denied by the tone and the terms in which they are offered, as note the comic alliteration of "w" and how an assertive beginning ("For once, then,") gives way to the hesitancy of the word "something."

From Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. Copyright © 1977 by Oxford University Press.

Karen L. Kilcup

This designing poem has lured generations of readers to contemplate death, order, evil, and the nature of poetry. The three elements of nature, all sideshow freaks, combine in a whimsical and dreadful drama of murder that is fostered by the sensibility of the speaker-poet. As if stirring "a witches' broth," conjuring a spell that captivates not simply the protagonists but the reader-listener as well, he elicits the tragicomic scene whose ostensible inadvertence mirrors the whimsical relationship between himself and the reader. Taking back with one hand what he gives with the other, Frost offers a "dimpled spider," "a flower like a froth," and "dead wings carried like a paper kite." The mood is fostered by this bizarre conjunction of images, in which the spider is like a baby (a jab at sentimental "dead baby" poem's? at his own "Home Burial"?), the flower is like food (or, more ominously, foam at the mouth of a madman), and the "dead wings" (reminiscent of Clara Robinson's poetry in "A Fountain") are a child's toy. All of these come together in a line that sounds like a jingle for breakfast cereal: "Mixed ready to begin the morning right."

The rhetorical gestures of the second stanza enforce our uncertainty and the narrator's power, for the questions suggest a knowledge of which we cannot partake, as he simultaneously claims membership in a secret society whose rituals confound the ordinary eye as he mocks that membership. We are provided a glimpse into the sacred chambers, however, with the second question: "What brought the kindred spider to that light, / Then steered the white moth hither in the night?" The controlling consciousness is, of course, the poet's own, as his apparently innocuous first words indicate: "I found." We might read right over this opening, and even later we might be tempted to emphasize the role of chance in the configuration of characters. But, as the poem progresses, retrospection insists that we assign ultimate weight to the "I," the mediating poetic consciousness that creates the utterly strange (and beautiful-ugly) meeting. By "finding" spider, moth, and flower, he becomes their creator, for his words bring them into daylight, onto the whiteness and blankness of the page. Hence, the last question and its "answer," "What but design of darkness to appall?-- / If design govern in a thing so small," at once expresses doubt and satisfaction at his own magic in the recreation of the scene, just as the ambiguity of "appall" challenges the reader to interpret "correctly": Does it mean "to shock"? "To make white?" "To kill?" All of the preceding?

The sestet meditates on the issue of design, for the rhyme scheme is overdetermined, having little variation, while the stress system of the last line, and particularly the emphasis on "if," remains entirely ambiguous. Having pulled back the curtain on his Wizard of Oz ever so slightly, the speaker leaves us, like Dorothy, to contemplate our own method of escape from Oz itself. The poet is a performer, a confidence man, and if we are drawn into the world of the poem, we have been "had"--and I always am.

Professional readers as a whole, I think, find this verbal intercourse irresistible. Nevertheless, even a perfunctory review of "Design" underlines its radical difference from the narrative poems: human relationships and other voices are erased in favor of intellectual challenge. The feminine voice that concerns itself with labor and love and that enacts a generous relationship with the reader metamorphoses into the ingenious and virtuoso poet. As Walton Beacham remarks, "'Playing' involves the whole spirit, while 'playfulness' can be the result of detached observation without real commitment to the game."

from Karen L. Kilcup. Robert Frost and the Feminine Literary Tradition. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998: 213-216.

John C. Kemp

The sonnet "Design" fully deserves the unusual compliment Randall Jarrell has paid it--"The most awful of Frost's smaller poems"--because it so skillfully and movingly recreates the observer's response to what he finds in his walks. And we should not forget that Thoreau also realized that nature could be frightening. In The Maine Woods, for instance, he wrote of his discovery on the lonely peak of Mt. Katahdin that "Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful," and he described the killing of a moose as a "tragedy" that "affected the innocence, destroyed the pleasure" of his adventure. Similarly, the speaker in Frost's "Design" has found in his travels not El Dorado but a tragedy (or, as he presents it, a kind of Gothic horror story) enacted by the spider and the moth, which has indeed "affected the innocence, destroyed the pleasure" of his morning walk.

The discovered tragedy of "Design," the lugubrious "morning rite" (to respell the pun at the end of line 5), elicited from Frost one of his most brilliantly crafted and vividly imagined poems. Its technical sophistication and imagistic complexity have received wide critical attention (most notably from Randall Jarrell, Reuben Brower, and Richard Poirier). But as an example of his approach to his region, his living "at home like a traveler," it shows how much he could accomplish when, instead of posing as regional spokesman, he concerned himself with a speaker in the process of responding to things found through Thoreauvian exploration.

The obvious contrast in "Design" is between declarative and interrogative. The octave is a single, smooth-flowing, descriptive sentence. We can associate its tone of detachment and objective restraint with the voice of the conventionally impassive New Englander. The sestet, however, is a series of questions that reveals a strikingly idiosyncratic blend of emotions: horror, dismay, passionate curiosity, and agonized bewilderment. But in light of Frost's comments on "The Death of the Hired Man" in his Paris Review interview, especially those concerning the opposition of Warren's masculine, paternal attitude and Mary's feminine, maternal sympathy, we might contrast the rather stern stoicism at the beginning of "Design" with the distressed compassion that dominates the sestet. In the ninth line, for the first time, an emotional response to the observed situation is suggested, and the language becomes more urgent and more overwrought than it was in the octave--more like the language of Mary, Amy, and the other wives in North of Boston:

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?

The triple modification of line 10 is a meaningful gauge of the persona's grief and distress. Shifting from the physical ("wayside blue") to the metaphysical ("innocent"), from concrete, descriptive accuracy to abstract, attributive exaggeration, the line constitutes a brief lament, a plea that establishes once and for all the speaker's sympathies. This prolonged appositive structure heightens the impact of the preceding line's interrogative outburst, reaching a climax of anguished intensity in the pathetic fallacy of "innocent." Innocence might seem an irrelevant issue: the flower, after all, is neither innocent nor guilty. Only to the human imagination could this natural scene involve criminality and evil. Only the anthropomorphizing mind would dispute whether the flower was an innocent bystander or a sinister accomplice, luring victims to the scene of the crime. What Frost ingeniously reveals in these lines is that his speaker's innocence is at stake, threatened not so much by evil as by his own ability to create a sense of villainy and malevolence in the universe. And the central issue is the speaker's ability to withstand the experience of evil, an experience greatly strengthened by his own imagination.

The sestet's repetitious questions (ll. 9, 11, 13) are slightly strained in diction, syntax, and logic--evidence of the speaker's horror and dismay at the sinister force deducible from the observed scene. This emotion is conveyed by strange predicate structures: "What had that flower to do with. . . . What brought the kindred spider. . . then steered the white moth thither. . . ." Curiously, but with telling effect, the reference of the pronoun "what" changes: first it pertains to essentially natural (botanical, horticultural) causes for the color of the flower (l. 9); but then it relates to an awesome, supernatural power--perhaps a godlike being, perhaps a sinister anthropomorphic force--capable of "bringing" the spider and "steering" the moth to their horrifying encounter.

As the speaker phrases his questions in the sestet, the cause of his tormented response to what he has seen becomes clear. We realize that he expects no answers. His mode of questioning betrays both his sense of futility and his reluctance to admit defeat. Thus Frost prepares us effectively for the ambivalent conclusion of the final couplet: what has happened bespeaks either a sinister design or, worse, the absence of design.

If the sestet's speaker is not explicitly an outsider, he at least reveals sympathies and emotional commitments that make it difficult for him to accept things as they are. The octave, however, much lighter in tone, shows touches of wit and what Brower terms "joking discovery." Yet even within these lines there is something of the same tension that is responsible for the contrast of octave and sestet, although it is evident here only insofar as the speaker's matter-of-fact tone (the tone we might associate with Warren) is threatened by his fascination with the terrifying symbolism of what he has found. Faintly, but significantly nonetheless, he reveals sympathies more appropriate to Mary than Warren, sympathies exposed more openly in the sestet. He shows the tendency to "overdo it a little" of which Amy was accused in "Home Burial" (l. 62). His four similes ("Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth," "Like the ingredients of a witches' broth," "like a froth," "like a paper kite") and several of his other images ("holding up a moth," "Assorted characters," "mixed ready to begin," "a snow-drop spider," "dead wings") are not as offhand as they seem. The ironies and the complex ambiguities of the language converge on an entirely human sense of evil and dark design. The persona who compares a dead moth with a "white piece of rigid satin cloth" can hardly be as lighthearted as his casual, unemotional tone might suggest--not given the deathly connotations of rigidity and the funereal associations of satin cloth.

Ultimately, the octave of "Design" has such imagistic force that it asks "in all but words" the same fundamental questions posed in the sestet. The speaker is reluctant to pose these questions and to face them openly, and we suspect that his wittily disguised reticence in the first eight lines arises from his underlying fear, which he discloses only (and tentatively even then) in the sonnet's final line, that there is less design in the world than he can bear. His tendency as an explorer and observer is to make too much of the "design of darkness" he discovers in the world around him. Unable to convince himself that the pattern he sees is mere whimsy, he is deeply distressed by it. As a practical insider, however, he sees the futility of overinterpretation and of too much emotional involvement with what he observes. His final doubt--"If design govern in a thing so small"--is doubly ironic. First of all, it concludes this poem about "Design" with a seemingly casual yet--because of its climactic position--very forceful suggestion that design does not govern anything. But, it is also ironic that a rejection of design should be couched in such an ingeniously designed sonnet (one of English poetry's most intricate forms, especially when only three rhymes are employed). Surely design has governed the speaker's mind, and as a Thoreauvian traveler, he has responded deeply to it; yet, simultaneously, as a practical, hardheaded Yankee, he disapproves of his own response. Throughout nine of the sonnet's fourteen lines, he resists the appallingly dark design, first by making light of it (through the octave's wit and whiteness), and finally (l. 14) by suggesting that it is at most a figment of his own imagination. This complex work blends regional and nonregional perspectives so effectively that the piece will not seem to be a New England poem at all unless we recognize that much of its crucial tension derives from the poet's sensitivity to a subtle conflict of voices (or tones of voice), a sensitivity nurtured by his regional experience.

From Robert Frost and New England: The Poet as Regionalist. Copyright © 1979 by Princeton UP.

George F. Bagby

. . . it is not surprising that a poet should feel menaced by a comet or the ocean; these represent nature at its most massive, and might well be expected to instill a sense of human fragility. But, in the best known of the dark prototypical poems, Frost confronts nature on a much more local scale-indeed, the poem hinges on the diminutiveness of the natural emblem—and still reads in it one of his most chilling lessons. "Design" is a crucial, and multiply ironic, enactment of and commentary on the whole Emersonian outlook which lies behind Frost's method of making nature lyrics. It continually invokes, and yet simultaneously questions, the entire American literary tradition which authorizes the process of emblem reading. For a basic understanding of the poem one still cannot do better than to read Randall ]arrell's account (88-91); I want merely to add a few remarks about the sonnet as an emblem poem.

Structurally, "Design" is as clear a model of the American emblem poem as we could ask for, its movement "from sight to insight" reflected in the conventional division of the sonnet into octave and sestet and underlined by the typographical separation of the two parts. The encounter with the natural emblem in the octave is essentially Thoreauvian: the poet, evidently, is out wandering alone in nature, and the time is early morning. Many of Frost's darkest insights into the natural order occur at the emblematic moment when night descends; but the impact of the macabre scene in "Design" is made more acute by the bright expectations of what Thoreau calls "the most memorable season of the day, . . . the awakening hour" (Walden 89), when the poet encounters these "Assorted characters of death and blight / Mixed ready to begin the rooming right." The natural "characters" represent a startling apparent violation of natural order: a wildflower which would normally be blue, a spider which would likely be dark, and a moth which might be almost any color are all the same color—and, with Melvillian irony, that color is the white of purity or innocence. As Jarrell notes, much of the descriptive detail in these lines is intended to heighten the grim contrast between the potential innocence—from the "dimpled" spider to the "dead wings carried like a paper kite"—and the actual horror of the scene.

Such inverted innocence, in such a small, even delicate scene, serves only to render the message that Frost reads in this tableau all the more dismaying: the evident "design of darkness to appall." Even that brief formulation is steeped in irony. As "The Onset" suggests (see below), shaped whiteness—the whiteness of design—may ordinarily be heartening to Frost; it is the indefinite and formless whiteness of snow (as in "Desert Places"), of Melvillian chaos, which usually dismays. Here, however, the shaped whiteness of a small emblem turns out to be not the whiteness of normal design, but of "design of darkness"; its effect is to "appall" the observer, to make him turn pale or white with dread of such dark whiteness.

Were "Design" to end with its thirteenth line, it would be a powerful and ironic but relatively straightforward emblem poem. The final verse, however, threatens to call all in doubt—not just the evident lesson of natural darkness, but the entire epistemological basis of reading the book of nature. That line—"If design govern in a thing so small"—questions the result and method of the rest of the poem, and the presuppositions of emblem reading, in the way Frost regularly questions his inherited assumptions. Neither in the context of this poem nor in the context of Frost's whole canon, however, does the last line deny the omnipresence of design.

This sonnet might almost have been written as a characteristic reaction by Frost to what he would consider the excesses of Emersonian optimism, as for instance this serene assertion: "I am not impressed by solitary marks of designing wisdom; I am thrilled with delight by the choral harmony of the whole. Design! It is all design. It is all beauty" (Early Lectures I: 49). Frost is too Thoreauvian in his familiarity with natural fact, including its dismaying side, to accept so sweeping a concept of design. In the poem's first thirteen lines, he simply extends the logic of the traditional argument from design; as Jarrell puts it, "If a watch, then a watch-maker; if a diabolical machine, then a diabolical mechanic" (89). But the last line—"If design govern in a thing so small"—seems to threaten to undermine not just the previous lines of this sonnet, but Frost's entire "synecdochist" poetics—as well as a long and central tradition of American nature writing. Frost invokes just that tradition in the eleventh and twelfth lines of "Design": "What brought the kindred spider to that height, / Then steered the white moth thither in the night?" The question echoes both Emerson in "The Rhodora" ("The self-same Power that brought me there brought you") and, behind that line, Bryant in "To a Water- fowl" ("He who, from zone to zone, / Guides through the bound-less sky thy certain flight . . . , / Will lead my steps aright"). Frost's couplet, in other words, simultaneously rings in and questions the nineteenth-century American poetic tradition of providential design.

The original version of the last line, reported by Thompson (The Early Years 582), reads: "Design, design! Do I use the word aright?" That question still lingers in the "If" of the revised final line. If we look at the poem as a whole, clearly design of some sort does "govern in a thing so small"—in the masterfully crafted sonnet itself, in its description in the octave which both heightens and ironizes the drama, in its sestet which simultaneously invokes and questions the tradition of the argument from design. The real question which the last line raises is whose design this is—whether that of God or nature or "darkness," on the one hand, or that of the observer, on the other. As William James puts it in Pragmatism: "the abstract word 'design' is a blank cartridge. It carries no consequences, does no execution. What design, and what designer? are the only serious questions." (quoted in Abel 66-67). The implication for Frost, I think, is that the "design of darkness" or of nature or of God is the design made by the perceiver, by the poet. Only the human eye can make or find any design in the natural world. Though the narrator's role in the drama is intentionally and ironically minimized, it remains crucial in the two opening words of the poem: "I found" (or in the "curious eye" "Saw" of the draft version). Like all revelation, all design "has been ours."

As the revised version of the last line of "Design" suggests, for a temperament as willful and feisty as Frost's, the occasional sense of the potential hostility and violence of the physical world, such as we see in "A Loose Mountain," "Once by the Pacific," and the first thirteen lines of "Design, " is ultimately less appalling than the threat of emptiness or indifference.

from Frost and the Book of Nature. Copyright © 1993 by the University of Tennessee Press.

Return to Robert Frost