Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Critical Analysis of Robert Frost's "Design"

Editor's Note: Lionel Trilling dubbed Robert Frost as " a terrifying poet" for Frost's poetry tends to portray man as a helpless pygmy in front of the huge might and complexity of the world that surrounds him. Man can neither look far nor deep enough to understand and make sense of the incomprehensible complexity and design that pervades & permeates the world. Lionel's may not be an entirely fair or an appropriate description of Frost's poetry but the fact remains that Frost is far more realistic and blunt in stating the truth than most other poets. Frost knows that expecting evil at dark places alone is being naive. One may be caught unawares even at the most unexpected places. Think not that black is the lone color representing evil as white too has the power to disturb & startle you unexpectedly.

"Design" 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 poem, 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 four in exactly ten syllables, every other one of which must be stressed, a little as in doggerel.:

Assorted characters of death and blight . . .

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 poem 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). Also notice 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.’

"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.

"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.
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.

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. Frost 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 sonnet 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 harbor 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.

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; 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", 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, 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". 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". 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?" 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, as reported by Thompson, 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." 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". Like all revelation, all design "has been ours."

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.

Works cited:

Frost and the Book of Nature.
American Poetry of the Twentieth Century
The Columbia History of American poetry

Robert Frost: A Biography by Jeffrey Meyers.
The Poetry of Robert Frost: Constellations of Intention by Reuben A. Brower


Anonymous said...


Kimcr94 said...

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Academic said...

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Anonymous said...

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Bittersweet Baker said...

This is so beautiful. The poem, the analysis, everything. It makes me content.

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