“Design” by Robert Frost Analysis Essay

Within the scope of this research, we will analyze “Design” work written by Robert Frost. One of the characteristics of Frost’s poetry is speculativeness. It is particularly apparent in the parables and its origin seems to be in the poet’s familiarity with his material. He not only feels sympathy with material common in experience, he also views it from the vantage ground of generalized experience. The critic who claims that any one characteristic must be present to create a poem is eventually made to look foolish by a poet who finds it possible to do without that one particular thing. If the recorded poetry of the world proves anything, it proves that a poem is never one fixed element, or a fixed combination of elements, but a combination of elements the boundaries of which are constantly being shifted. Thus, though a reader or critic of Robert Frost’s poems notices immediately the accurately observed physical facts, there is no need to assume there is no other way to write poems.

In the close-textured arachnida web of “Design,” Frost recounts a nature adventure. One morning, having found a fat, white spider clutching the dead wings of a white moth on a white heal-all, Frost evokes the grim nocturnal event in which the white spider nabbed an unwary moth that blundered into a cunning web stretched on a blighted heal-all. What can be said is that this is Robert Frost’s way. Also, it can be said that this way of beginning is one of the possible good ways; for if the poet has been faithful to his scene and to what takes place within that scene, nothing can cut his foundation from beneath him. He has reached the point upon which firm structures can be built. (DeFusco, 1999) From that position he can move upward and outward; he can expand as far as his creative abilities permit.

The “assorted characters of death and blight” (Monteiro, 1988) –the off-color heal-all, the lethal spider, the vulnerable, misdirected moth–start the poet ruminating on what motivated this fateful encounter–design or chance? “What,” he thinks at any rate, “but design of darkness to appall?” (Monteiro, 1988) And to this rhetorical question, he adds an interjectory Parthian shot, “If design govern in a thing so small.” (Monteiro, 1988) His conjectural inquiry not only implies a subtle but a malefic force at work.

And if design operates on the lower level in nature–if it is in the ruck of little things-then, by extension, it must also operate generally in the human sphere of activity since man cannot be separated from the complex, interrelated destiny of the natural universe. Always a deep, clear, and broad love of earth, of the physical, has pervaded the poetry of Robert Frost, and “Design” is just another proof of such assertion. Turn anywhere among his poems, early or late, long or short, and evidence of this love appears–with an accuracy that proves a respect for the material used, with a minuteness that proves a human belief in individuality rather than a scientific concern for abstraction, and with an abundance that proves a permanent rather than a passing interest. (DeFusco, 1999) The range and nature of the Frost accuracy is illustrated by what he has to say when faced with various well-known ‘things’ from the world of physical actuality.

“Design” both approaches and recoils from belief in a purposive universe — the ambivalent note — and is equally disturbed by both attitudes. It is a shrewd gambit on the poet’s part to start with the specific rather than with the abstract. This method sharpens the logic of the poem and heightens the imaginative element, which consists in what the particular suggests of the universal, the physical of the metaphysical. He submits to a sharp scrutiny the assumption that if God’s in his heaven all should be well in earthly as well as heavenly affairs. How is it possible to reconcile this appalling scene of a very minor tragic event in nature with the orthodox picture of design controlled by an omniscient and omnipotent, loving and redemptive divinity?

The poet’s relationship to the argument in the poem is interesting. He shows no sudden ingenuous surprise that creative design should include the malefic, and, even more significantly, he gives no indication of a sentimental wish that it were otherwise. Simply looking at and into he re-enforces factual observation by an ironic reflective comment in the last line. Certainly “if design govern in a thing so small’-if in God’s kingdom of special providence no sparrow falls unnoticed-why is the white moth “steered” so unprovidentially to the fatal ambush on a white heal-all by a shrewd divine guiding force? (DeFusco, 1999) At least, the poet is suggesting, this deed of nocturnal violence is not too insignificant to pass unremarked upon and unquestioned.
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DeFusco, Andrea. ed. Readings on Robert Frost. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1999.
Monteiro, George. Robert Frost & the New England Renaissance. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1988.