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Robert Frost's "Design"

Updated on March 14, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Robert Frost

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Design"

Robert Frost's American, or Innovative, sonnet follows the Petrarchan form with an octave whose rime scheme is traditional, ABBAABBA and a sestet, but the rime scheme of the sestet is quite innovative, ACAACC, with the final two lines echoing the couplet of the Elizabethan, or Shakespearean, sonnet.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Design

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.

Reading of Frost's "Design"

Commentary

First Quatrain in the Octave: "I found a dimpled spider, fat and white"

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

The speaker reports, somewhat astonished, that he happened upon a white spider that was grasping and holding aloft a white moth and both were situated on a white heal-all.

The speaker then describes the event as "assorted characters of death and blight" because of the eerie feeling such an unlikely sight has given him.

Indeed, the speaker likens the moth to "a white piece of rigid satin cloth," an image that serves the poet well in both rime and kinship to death, as caskets are often lined with a satin-finish material.

Second Quatrain in the Octave: "Mixed ready to begin the morning right"

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.

The so-called mixture of albino spider, moth, and flower, the speaker claims, was ready to begin the morning right. He then colorfully likens them to the ingredients of a witches broth.

Again, the speaker richly describes the ingredients of this "witches' broth" as "a snow-drop spider, a flower like froth, and dead wings like a paper kite."

First Tercet in the Sestet: "What had that flower to do with being white"

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,

In the sestet, the speaker turns philosophical. His astonishment at happening upon such an uncanny sight leads him to question the appropriateness, even the naturalness, of it all and what one thing has to do with another.

For example, the speaker asks, "What had that flower to do with being white?" And he explains that the heal-all is usually blue, and he calls it innocent—not a part of a witches' broth as it is now appearing before him.

The speaker then poses the question, "What brought the kindred spider to that height?" He is musing on what motivations might have prompted these three unlikely entities to be found together.

Second Tercet in the Sestet: "Then steered the white moth thither in the night?"

Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.

Finally, the speaker wonders what might have steered the white moth to have come there in the night. The speaker ultimately muses that if this scene were designed, it could have well been done with the intention to appall the poor soul who happened upon it.

But on the other hand, he does not want to take too seriously that some design has conspired to such calumny; thus, he just sloughs it off by sticking the notion in an if clause and labeling the whole thing small.

Life Sketch of Robert Frost

Robert Frost's father, William Prescott Frost, Jr., was a journalist, living in San Fransisco, California, when Robert Lee Frost was born on March 26, 1874; Robert's mother, Isabelle, was an immigrant from Scotland. The young Frost spent eleven years of his childhood in San Fransisco. After his father died of tuberculosis, Robert's mother moved the family, including his sister, Jeanie, to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where they lived with Robert's paternal grandparents.

Robert graduated in 1892 from Lawrence High School, where he and his future wife, Elinor White, served as co-valedictorians. Robert thEn made his first attempt to attend college at Dartmouth College; after only a few months, he returned to Lawrence and began working a series of part-time jobs.

Elinor White, who was Robert's high school sweetheart, was attending St. Lawrence University when Robert proposed to her. She turned him down because she wanted to finish college before marrying. Robert then relocated to Virginia, and then after returning to Lawrence, he again to proposed to Elinor, who had now completed her college education. The two married on December 19, 1895. Their first child, Eliot, was born the following year.

Robert then made another attempt to attend college; in 1897, he enrolled in Harvard University, but because of health issues, he had to leave school again. Robert rejoined his wife in Lawrence, and their second child Lesley was born in 1899 . The family then moved to a New Hampshire farm that Robert's grandparents had acquired for him. Thus, Robert's farming phase commenced as he attempted to farm the land and continue his writing. His first poem to appear in print, “My Butterfly," had been published on November 8, 1894, in The Independent, a New York newspaper.

The next twelve years proved a difficult time in Frost's personal life, but a fertile one for his writing. The Frosts' first child, Eliot, died in 1900 of cholera. The couple, however, went on to have four more children, each of which suffered from mental illness to suicide. The couple's farming endeavors continued to result in unsuccessful attempts. Frost became well adjusted to rustic life, despite his miserable failure as a farmer.

Frost's writing life took off in a splendid fashion, and the rural influence on his poems would later set the tone and style for all of his works. However, despite the success of his individual published poems, such "The Tuft of Flowers" and "The Trial by Existence," he could not find a publisher for his collections of poems.

Relocation to England

It was because of his failure to find a publisher for his collections of poems that Frost sold the New Hampshire farm and moved his family to England in 1912. This moved proved to be life-line for the young poet. At age 38, he secured a publisher in England for his collection, A Boy's Will, and soon after North of Boston.

In addition to finding a publisher for his two books, Frost became acquainted with Ezra Pound and Edward Thomas, two important poets of the day. Both Pound and Thomas reviewed Frost's two book favorably, and thus Frost's career as a poet moved forward.

Frost's friendship with Edward Thomas was especially important, and Frost has remarked that the long walks taken by the two poet/friends had influenced his writing in a marvelously positive manner. Frost has credited Thomas for his most famous poem, "The Road Not Taken," which was sparked by Thomas' attitude regarding not being able to take two different paths on their long walks.

Returning to America

After World War 1 broke out in Europe, the Frosts set sail back to the United States. The brief sojourn in England had had useful consequences for the poet's reputation, even back in his native country. American Publisher, Henry Holt, picked up Frost's earlier books, and then come out with his third, Mountain Interval, a collection that had been written while Frost was still residing in England.

Frost was treated to the delicious situation of having the same journals, such as The Atlantic, soliciting his work, even though they had rejected that same work a couple of years earlier.

The Frosts once again became owners of a farm located in Franconia, New Hampshire, which they purchased in 1915. The end of their traveling days were over, and Frost continued his writing career, as he taught intermittently at a number of colleges, including Dartmouth, University of Michigan, and particularly Amherst College, where he taught regularly from 1916 until 1938. Amherst's main library is now the Robert Frost Library, honoring the long-time educator and poet. He also spent most summers teaching English at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Frost never completed a college degree, but over his entire lifetime, the revered poet accumulated more than forty honorary degrees. He also won the Pulitzer Prize four times for his books, New Hampshire, Collected Poems, A Further Range, and A Witness Tree.

Frost considered himself a "lone wolf" in the world of poetry because he did not follow any literary movements. His only influence was the human condition in a world of duality. He did not pretend to explain that condition; he only sought to create little dramas to reveal the nature of the emotional life of a human being.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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