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  • By Glenn Wright

Beyond the Lines: “Design” by Robert Frost

Encounters with the divine are rare enough that they invariably catch us by surprise. It can seem that God, like the Wizard of Oz hiding behind his curtain, uses nature as his screen, peeking out at us occasionally to offer proof of His existence. St. Thomas Aquinas proposed several arguments for the existence of God, the most famous of which is the “Argument from Design.” Simply summarized, it says that in our complex universe, everything cooperates to create order in spite of the fact that inanimate objects lack the reason and intellect necessary to formulate a coherent plan; thus a rational creator must have designed our world. What Aquinas did not consider was whether the Creator’s motives were benign or sinister.


Robert Frost first published the poem “In White” in 1922 and revised it in 1936 in his collection, A Further Range, changing the title to “Design.” Here is the final version:


                                 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 speaker, out on a morning walk, finds something odd—a white moth held by a white spider on a white heal-all flower—and immediately feels as though he has been transported into Act IV of Macbeth. He questions why all three of them are white.  Heal-all flowers should be blue, spiders should be black, and moths are usually brown. The most likely answer, although it is not offered by the speaker, is that they were flash-frozen the previous night when the temperature plunged below freezing.  He also questions what brought the three together. It seems that the moth was somehow directed to the spider, who, assisted by the flower, achieves the necessary height to pluck the moth out of the air. Just as the spider is preparing to enjoy his tasty windfall, he is frozen to death along with the moth and flower. This tableau mort suggests that the Creator is not above playing cruel practical jokes on his creatures. The flower, spider, and moth create a miniature mockery of the Trinity, three in one. 


In the last line, clearly disturbed by the implications of his discovery, the speaker seems to dismiss the whole line of thought as trivial or irrelevant, but the reader is invited to answer the question abandoned by the speaker: Who or what guided the events to create the tiny tragicomedy? The structure of the poem offers some clues.

First, the poem is a Petrarchan sonnet, but unlike a normal Petrarchan sonnet, with four or five rhymes in the scheme ABBAABBA CDCDCD or ABBAABBA CDECDE , this sonnet uses only three rhymes: ABBAABBA  ACAACC. The tight patterning of the poem suggests that there is indeed design in even the smallest of things. Second, the word “design” has malignant overtones not present in synonyms like “pattern,” “plan,” or “organization.” A “designing” person schemes and plots secretly. Heroes have plans; villains have designs. Whoever or whatever controls the universe may not have the purest of motives. Third, Frost uses dense imagery of light and dark to suggest the tension between good and evil woven into the fabric of our universe. The incident occurs early in the morning, on the cusp of dark and light, just before the sun would have melted the frost causing the three creatures to be white. The word “white” appears three times in the first three lines and again in lines 9 and 12. “Snow-drop” (line 7),  “froth” (line 7), “paper” (line 8), “appall” (line 13) and by contrast “night” (line 12) and “darkness” (line 13) complete the imagery.


Robert Frost makes many references to snow, frost, ice, and the color white in his poems. It may have been a kind of inside joke in his family since his wife’s maiden name was Elinor White. Perhaps the best known examples of this reference are “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “Fire and Ice.” The usual association of whiteness is purity or innocence, but in many of Frost’s poems, whiteness is associated with death or deception. In “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” the attractive snow is tempting the speaker to dereliction of duty, or perhaps suicide. In “Fire and Ice,” the ice is one of two possible scenarios for the end of the world. In “Design,” the white, “dimpled” spider looks innocent—even, perhaps, cute—but is caught in the act of murder. If whiteness is emblematic of God, the reader wonders if the implied purity is real or pretended. What is God revealing about Himself to the speaker?


An ancient trope compares the poet creating a poem to God creating the universe.  The very word “poem” comes from the Greek work for “something created.” In this case the answer to the question, “What brought the kindred spider to that height?” and then scripted the ensuing miniature drama is never mentioned, but remains hidden, like God. It is Frost. 

Glenn Wright is a retired teacher living in Anchorage, Alaska, with his wife, Dorothy, and their dog, Bethany.  He writes poetry in order to challenge what angers him, to ponder what puzzles him, and to celebrate what delights him.

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