Design: Poem by Robert Frost - Summary & Analysis

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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.

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.

Summary and Analysis


      Design is one of the best known of Frost's sonnets. It shows Frost's poetic qualities compressed in one small poem. Unlike many of his other sonnets in which meditative quality reigns rampant, the present one, along with 'On a Bird Singing in its Sleep' is a fable in miniature.


      The heal-all is a common plant found in the countryside. It is generally always blue in color and is supposed to have healing and curing properties. Some varieties of it also have white flowers. One day, the poet comes across such a plant. The poet observes and communicates to the reader that he saw a white spider on the white heal-all. The poet describes the spider very lovingly and sympathetically using words like 'dimpled', 'fat' etc. - words mat we use for sweet, small children. Incidentally, the spider has in its mouth a white moth which he holds like 'a piece of rigid satin in cloth'. These three brought together in this manner complete a pattern of white.

      This sets the poet thinking and he reflects and broods upon this. He asks himself and the reader if the coming together of the while heal-all, the white spider and the while moth is a sheer accident, a stroke of chance or is it well-planned, scheme or design of some controller of the universe. Very logically, the poet senses a designer, a prime-mover behind this pattern of whiteness: there definitely is a guide who sets the pattern and guides the course of movement. Though the pattern is white, it is an assimilation of Various ingredients of 'death and blight'. The comparison of these ingredients to those of a witches' broth is only too apt. The ingredients in witch's broth are plain, ordinary and as innocent as a lamb. But when mixed together in a particular manner by the witches, they assume rare, devastating and wicked qualities. The poet travels further on the string of logic and concludes that the contriver of a diabolic world must also be devilish and diabolic. The poet comes to the conclusion that there is some terrible and malevolent power responsible for the propulsion of things in the manner as they happen; a power that weaves appalling and fearful 'designs of darkness'. Here, perhaps Frost's tone is that of Blake who is at once awed and scared by the "fearful symmetry" of the Tiger.

      But this is not the end. And it is the ending that is important. The last line is suggestive of another possibility and gives to the poem an open ending. It suggests that there might not be such an awful design after all, and the coming together of the white flower, the white spider and the white moth might be a pure accident. But the implications of this suggestions are far more terrifying than those of the earlier conclusion. It presupposes a chaotic world where anarchy reigns. There might be no design in it because man's universe is too petty and insignificant to grant any scope for design or planning. In such a world, everything could be attributed to chance and accident, completely devoid of any planning. Pertaining to this point, Randall Jarrell says: "In large things, microscopic phenomena of some real importance, the classical, mechanics of design probably does operate, but these little things, things of no real importance, microscopic phenomena, like flower or moth or man or planet or solar system, are governed by purely statistical laws of quantum mechanics, of random distribution. In other words, by chance and accident."

Critical Analysis:

      As I have said earlier, this is of the best known sonnets of Frost and has very rightly earned a lot of critical focus. In this sonnet, Frost has touched almost Shakespearean heights in his capacity of compression of meaning in such a small space as well as in the artistic excellence of the poem. It has been regarded as the most awful of Frost's Smaller poems and Lionel Trilling takes up this poem as an example to show that the universe conceived of by Frost is an extremely terrifying one. Lawrance Thompson, in his familiar literary style, acclaims it as a "dark study in white; a study through which the poet tries (and succeeds to a large extent) to upset the romantic, complacent and optimistic view of nature as kind and benevolent. From a study of a number of Frost's poems, we find that Frost's world view is not an accepted or a common one. It is terrifying. It is much more realistic than the complacent view of English romantic poets who glorified Nature as a 'kindly mother, with a holy plan' of her own. Nature has often been personified as watching benevolently over her dear ones (human, beings and other creations). Lawrance Thompson has a very perceptive comment to make here. He says that this small poem discourages any "too - optimistic sense of a benevolent design in nature, for such a view runs counter to observed fact. Frost successfully challenges and upsets the romantic notion about Nature.

      Frost has, time and again, given ample proof of an ease with language and the framing of a technique that enables him to provide his poems with just the right conclusions. It is gross exaggeration and over-generalizing to say that Frost is an extremely simple poet, the meaning of his poems generally floating on the surface. Nothing is ever crude or obvious in his poems - and Design shows how he can give a sudden twist to the reader's imagination and expectation. Pointing out some of the distinctive features of Frost's poetry as are manifest in this poem, Brower says: "Few poems by Frost are more perfectly and surely composed, few where the figure in the mind and in the ear are better matched". Let us consider the daring use of some end-rhymes half the total numbering in a single sound. Though the repetition in the octet can be found in other poets too, the surprise comes with the rhyme in Line 9, which the poet again carefully picks up in 'height' and 'night'. This persistent echo is not merely the poet's whimsical word play. Idea and image play with the disturbing discovery of the poem: words and things that ought to mean good turn out to be evil. One must notice the surprisingly apt use of many double and triple stresses on successive syllables from white heal-all through snow-drop-spider to white-moth-thither.


      For conclusion, it will suffice to say that from the point of view of the peculiarities of style, versification and theme Design is one of the most significant of Frost's poems.

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