Robert Frost's Design Essay

918 words - 4 pages

Robert Frost's Design

Robert Frost's "Design" is a meditation on human attempts to see order in the universe--and human failures at perceiving the order that is actually present in nature. The speaker of the poem perceives what he takes to be a significant coincidence, then speculates on what the coincidence might mean, or whether it means anything at all. However, he fails to see that there is a very good reason for the coincidence he spots, and the "design" of nature that it implies is quite different from anything he suggests.

Design
by Robert Frost

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.

The starting point for the speaker's thinking is what he perceives to be a coincidence: a white spider sits on a white flower holding up a white moth. The coincidence is even more striking because heal-alls are usually blue.

In Western culture, the color white usually symbolizes goodness, purity, and innocence. The language of the poem suggests these connotative links: the spider is "dimpled" as well as "fat and white," like a newborn baby. The moth's wings are like a "white piece of rigid satin cloth," like a bridal dress (or perhaps the lining of a coffin; already the speaker seems to be looking for the "darker" underside of the color white). The name "heal-all," too, suggests health, or perhaps the wisdom and benificence of a healer.

By the end of the octet, the contrast between the positive connotations of the color white and the apparent gruesomeness of the scene before the speaker is made explicit. On the one hand, the scene is one of "death and blight," mixed like a "witch's broth" and including "dead wings." On the other hand, the spider is like a "snow-drop," suggesting purity, and the moth's wings are like a "paper kite," suggesting innocence.

In the sestet, the speaker wonders how this coincidence of a white spider and white moth on a white flower came to be, especially given the ironic tension between the positive connotations of the color symbolism and the negative connotations of the spider's killing of the moth. The speaker seems to absolve any of the three of any blame,...

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