An Unfolding of Robert Frost’s “Design”

“I always wanted to be very observing,” Robert Frost once said, after reading his poem “Design” to an audience. Then he added, “But I have always been afraid of my own observations”. What could Frost have observed that could scare him? Let’s observe the poem in question and see what we discover.

Starting with the title, “Design”, any reader of this poem will find it full of meaning. As “Webster’s new world dictionary” defines “Design”, the word can denote among other things, a plan, or “purpose; intention; aim”. Some arguments for the existence of god (I remember from Sunday school) are based on the “argument from design”; that because the world shows a systematic order, there must be a designer who made it. But the word design can also mean “a secret or sinister scheme” – such as we attribute to a “designing person”. As we shall see, Frost’s poem incorporates all of these meanings. His poem raises the old philosophic question of whether there is a designer, and evil designer, or no designer at all. Frost probably read William James on this question, as a critic has shown convincingly.

Like many other sonnets, “Design” is divided into two parts. The first eight lines draw a picture centering on the spider, which at first seems almost jolly. It is dimpled and fat like a baby, or Santa Claus. It stands on a wild flower whose name, heal-all, seems ironic: a heal-all is supposed to cure any disease, but it certainly has no power to restore life to the dead moth. In this second line we discover, too, that the spider has hold of another creature. Right away we might feel sorry for the moth, were it not the simile applied to it in line three: “like a white piece of rigid satin cloth.” suddenly the moth becomes not a creature but a piece of fabric – and yet satin has connotation of beauty. Satin is luxurious material used in rich formal clothing, such as coronation grows and brides’ dresses.

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