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Design of Darkness: a Study of Frost’s Design Paper

Robert Frost outlines an ironic and disturbing situation involving a flower, a spider, and a moth in his poem “Design”. The poem’s text suggests the possibility of an absence of a god, but does no more than simply beg the question, for Frost’s speaker does not offer the answer. By examining the events of the poem in the first stanza and the speaker’s annotative second stanza, we arrive at the notion that perhaps the world is in disarray, and uncontrolled by a higher being.

The first stanza sets the scene as an ironic and unsettling one, containing gruesome images which seem to replace the notion of chastity with that of evil. The speaker launches the reader right into the action without warning in the first line, which reads “I found a dimpled spider, fat and white” (Frost line 1). The tone is personal, as though he were speaking to himself aloud, attempting to understand something. Also in the first line, he mentions that the spider is white, which is odd considering most spiders are of dark colors. “[D]impled [?

,] fat and white” sounds familiar to how one would describe an infant (1), implying the spider’s innocence. Frost’s spider sits “[o]n a white heal-all” (2), which is an herb that was thought to cure diseases and other sicknesses, and is characteristically not white, but blue. Again, the plant’s color reveals its purity, and perhaps even its perfection. The purpose of the plant’s mention in the poem is to be the ironic stage for what is soon to occur. To complete the image, the speaker declares that this white spider on a white plant “hold[s] up a moth / [l]ike a white piece of rigid satin cloth” (2-3).

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White again, the moth also represents innocence, just as the spider and heal-all do. This model is ironic: an innocent spider on an innocent heal-all holds up an innocent dead moth. The simile in which the speaker describes the moth, “[l]ike a white piece of satin cloth” (3), refers to a piece of a torn wedding dress, symbolizing the vulnerability of things considered to be holy, such as holy matrimony. Frost designates the spider, heal-all, and moth as “[a]ssorted characters of death and blight” (4), suggesting that all three had a part in the moth’s fatality.

Ironically, Frost uses the word “blight” inferring the heal-all’s backward influence, such as if aloe were to cause an infection. Frost again uses irony proclaiming that these characters are “[m]ixed ready to begin the morning right” (5), as though they are ? part of a balanced breakfast,’ a ritualistic practice which ensues good health. In this line, the poet implies that the death scene and others like it must occur in order for life to continue on each morning for particular creatures; this spider’s breakfast is an occurrence of Darwinist natural selection.

The poet then conveys this breakfast practice as evil, using a simile to compare the characters with “the ingredients of a witches’ broth” (6). The speaker then refers to each of the players again, and in its own “witches’ broth” form. The spider is “[a] snow-drop spider” (7), reinforcing the irony which has built up. The “flower [is] like a froth” (7), meaning it is the gruesome spider’s messy breakfast plate whose the moth-meal is described as “dead wings carried like a paper kite” (8).

Frost’s speaker describes the moth this way of course because it is in reference to the ingredients of a witches’ brew, but also because of the symbolism a paper kite boasts. A paper kite is a child’s toy, and one which does not last very long before reaching destruction; this parallels the moth’s early grave. In the poem’s second stanza, the speaker asks himself a series of rhetorical questions which ultimately challenge the existence of a creator. The tone of this second stanza opposes that of the first stanza, which seemed to brand the deadly coincidence as sickening and evil.

The poem is a sonnet whose rhyme scheme follows the traditional pattern in the octave, but strays from it in the sestet, implying the speaker’s certainty about what he has witnessed and his curiosity about the questions raised by it. In the sestet, the speaker seems to wonder how such an occurrence came about, given the irony led by the connotation of colors. He asks, “What had that flower to do with being white / [t]he wayside blue and innocent heal-all? ” (9-10). This question implies the impossibility of the flower’s guilt; how could the heal-all be at fault when it does not choose its own color?

An Ace does not determine its suit. The flower is, of course, a mindless one, and is completely innocent of any charges. To build on this idea, Frost also deems the spider and moth innocent using the same justification, asking “[w]hat brought the kindred spider to that height, / [t]hen steered the white moth thither in night? ” (11-12). If all the characters in the scene are innocent, then who’s fault is it? These first few questions the speaker asks develop an idea that some force drove this coincidence into being, and suggests it is an evil force, apparent by the next question which asks “[w]hat but design of darkness to appall?

” (13). Frost’s speaker cannot understand why a perfect loving god would allow such horrendous and evil practices to occur. This poem does not solely focus on the incident with the moth and spider; it applies to all things which seem evil and wrong in the world. Why would a perfect loving god permit rape, murder, war, etcetera? The speaker then, in the last line of the poem, retrospectively questions the existence of a higher being altogether, wondering “[i]f design govern in a thing so small” (14). Design, otherwise known as creation, equates to a higher being.

The speaker’s basically spells out his entire thought process about the matter at hand and then, in the last line, sums it up by challenging the notion of intelligent design altogether. The events he has witnessed are unexplainable if a god exists, leading the speaker to doubt the validity of the conformist belief in intelligent design. Evil seems to rule the planet, not good, and he denies the ability to believe that a creator would allow such sin and cruelty to exist without doing anything about it, especially when this sin so overwhelmingly overshadows any good which remains in the world.

Although much of the second stanza is interrogative, the poem ends with a period, not with a question mark, signifying certainty, not of a godless world, but of the notion that if a creator does live, his actions are senseless and incomprehensible. In his sonnet “Design”, Robert Frost puts forth his idea of an uncontrolled universe, either absent of a creator, or of a competent creator. He explains his theory by mapping out a natural bug-eat-bug crime scene, and the significance of something which seems “so small”.

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