Sample Commentary on Frost’s Design, by S. Spachman

(* Please note: Due to the ambiguity and complexity of the poem, I do not offer a neat and tidy "judgment statement."  However, I do offer a main claim.  This claim works as my controlling "judgment statement" in this commentary.  Please also note that in this essay I consider the poem in isolation from other Frost works, but I do contextualize the poem within the larger body of literature I've read, from Shakespeare to Woolf.  Last, this commentary is much longer than the commentaries you are asked to write; however, please note the specificity in analysis because you can accomplish such specificity in shorter arguments.)




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 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.


Plan or Chance?:  The Meaning of Life in Robert Frost's "Design"

            Shakespeare once wrote, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Clearly, this line suggests that life is only a series of unreal scenes put on by people, but it also alludes to issues concerning whether the “players” are actually in control of the scenes they play.  The “merely” is problematic: Does Shakespeare mean “merely” as “only” or as “simply?”  Is he suggesting that the players who act out life’s dramas are under the direction of a higher power or plan, that they are simply puppets on the stage of life?  This basic philosophical issue, of course, does not begin and end with Shakespeare.  People of all eras have tackled this quandary, and among them is Robert Frost.  Through his poem, “Design,” Frost investigates the dichotomies of “light” and “dark,” “good” and “bad,” and “life” and “death.”  Frost presents the question of whether these concepts and the characters affected by them are united through design or coincidence which thus creates the central tension of the poem.  While almost every word and its placement, every punctuation mark and image works to produce this tension, ultimately Frost offers no resolution of the tension.  Although the title and many elements in the poem suggest that Frost sees life as an experience that is controlled and designed by a cruel being--much like the perspective Virginia Woolf offers in her essay "Old Mrs. Grey, I ultimately believe that the poem remains ambiguous. Good or bad, design or fluke, Frost builds this poem not to offer his readers an easy answer about life.  Instead he sets up a multi-faceted argument about life which his readers have to resolve, if they can, for themselves.

            The poem begins simply enough.  In the first three lines, Frost tells his readers a story about finding a white spider sitting on a white flower.  In the spider’s arms is a white moth, which readers find out later is dead.  What draws the audience’s more serious attention to this situation is that these three figures are all white.  This is especially unusual when readers consider the denotation of “heal-all” (line 2).  A heal-all is “a common herb of the Mint family (Brunela vulgaris), destitute of active properties, but anciently thought to be a panacea” (“Heal-all”).  Flowering plants that are part of the Mint family typically have bluish flowers, not white ones.  The heal-all in the poem is an anomaly—“What had that flower to do with being white/ The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?” (lines 9-10), and it is this that Frost presents as a concern.  Here a flower that is usually blue has attracted a white spider, who has used the flower as camouflage.  The flower has also attracted the attention of a moth, who is by nature drawn toward light and therefore is more likely to move toward a white flower--which radiates light even in dim conditions--than a blue flower.  As a result, the moth has been killed by the white spider.  The final six lines of the poem are a series of questions Frost has about this situation.  He wants to know whether the flower, the spider, and moth have been united in this circle of life and death by contrivance or whether it was merely chance.

            Frost’s initial answer to these questions is that design has brought these entities together.  “Design” means to create or draw up, to plan toward a specific purpose.  The idea of “design” in the poem suggests that some other entity or force has specifically created the white heal-all, the white spider, and the white moth and has brought them together for a particular purpose.  Design seems to be Frost’s initial answer to his own questions not just because “Design” is the title of the poem, thereby being the first impression readers receive when reading the poem, but because of the elaborate design of the poem itself.  “Design” is a strict Petrarchan sonnet.  It has iambic pentameter and a very limited rhyme scheme, abbaabbaacaacc, in which there are only three different rhymes.  It is clearly divided into an octet and sestet in which Frost sets up the situation in the octet and reflects on it in the sestet.  There is also symmetry in the octet.  The octet can be divided up in two different ways.  First, and most obvious is the rhyme scheme; the first four lines mirror the rhyme scheme of the second four lines:  abba and abba.  Secondly, the “characters” of the spider, flower, and moth are listed in the first two lines and in the last two lines of the octet.  All of this obvious structure on Frost’s part suggests that the answer to his questions must be "design."

            Frost’s imagery and diction further support this answer.  In “Design,” he uses the simile “Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth” (line 6) and the word “mixed” to suggest that the spider, flower, and moth are “assorted characters” that have been selected and put together for the purposes of another being.  They have no say or control in their fate by themselves but must adhere to a greater power’s plan.  Moreover, Frost uses the word “kindred” in line 11.  “Kindred,” according to the American Heritage School Dictionary, means, “Having a similar origin or nature, related; a group of related persons, a family, tribe, or clan” (“Kindred”).  This word applies to the spider, flower, and moth not just because they all share the characteristic of being white.  This denotation prompts the audience to see the spider, flower, and moth as being made by the same creator, a creator who, again, specifically designed them.  The words “brought” (line 11) and “steered” (line 12) enhance this notion of design by implying that the spider and the moth did not come together under their own power.  Once again, some other force designing the situation has placed them together.

            The audience would have to buy Frost’s answer if Frost himself did not express a problem with “design.”  Within the overwhelming evidence of design in the poem are images and words with connotations of evil.  The image of the spider, flower, and moth as “ingredients of a witches’ broth” is terrifying and wicked since witches are generally associated with the devil.  This insinuates that the “greater power” behind the planning is not a benevolent being like the Christian God, but a malicious being whose intent is to tempt and destroy.  Frost elaborates on this terrible idea through the use of foreboding diction.  In line 4, even before the audience knows for sure that the moth is dead, Frost uses the words “death” and “blight,” both of which have obvious connotations of decay and degeneration.  What makes these concepts especially distressing is that death has come to a moth with “satin” (line 3) and “paper” wings.  The image “satin” and “paper” create is one of beauty and fragility, and yet this beautiful, fragile thing has been killed because some higher power wanted it so.  Moreover, this deadly result is “right” (line 5), which suggests that if the “darkness” (line 13) of “night” (line 12) had ended any other way, the whole balance of life would have been ruined.

Frost does not end his argument about the problem of design there, however.  He again drives his point home by choosing the color of “white” and purposefully using the “innocent heal-all” (line 10) and innocuous-looking “snow-drop spider” (line 7).  First, Frost uses irony to reinforce the impotence of the “characters” in his poem.  The “heal-all,” which ancient people believed to be a panacea, a cure-all for evil and disease, in reality has no such powers, nor does it have these powers in the poem since Frost uses it as the setting for the “death” and “blight.”  Ironically, the death of the moth and the ultimate decay of all things living cannot be stopped by the “heal-all” which should be able to heal all.  In addition, “white” has undeniable connotations of purity and innocence, and “snow-drop” connotations of delicacy and harmlessness.  Yet look what happens to the pure, innocent, and harmless characters in the poem.  Even they are not exempt from the master design of the evil being.  If the white spider, white flower, and white moth are merely pawns in the scheme of life and death, suddenly the associations of “purity” and “innocence” become meaningless.  This leads to even darker issues.  If life is designed “to appall” (line 13), life itself is meaningless because it is so embedded with evil.

Frost, however, does present an escape from the impending notion that life is so appallingly planned.  He sets it up in the sestet of the sonnet by using a series of three rhetorical questions.  Since Frost questions the situation of the spider, the flower, and the moth and its possible meanings, he leaves the door open for chance.  The ready answer of “design” is particularly called into question with the deliberate use of the word “If” in the last line.  “If” is the consummate harbinger of doubt.  Frost wants his audience to question the idea that life and death are predestined after setting his readers up for an easy, although terrible answer throughout most of the poem.   He also leaves his audience on a much less threatening note by using the word “small” (line 14).  Suddenly the audience is reminded of the connotations of harmlessness, fragility, and innocence surrounding the descriptions of the spider, flower, and moth.  Although life remains devoid of meaning—for if everything is chance, then there is no real meaning or motivation in it—the dissolution of evil in life makes that meaninglessness easier to take.

Ultimately, the reader does not receive a tidy answer about life and death from Frost.  In fact, by the end of this poem, the reader perhaps feels a bit like the moth, spider, and heal-all who may or may not be the playthings of a higher power, for our own understanding of the world has been toyed with by Frost.  The overpowering structure, imagery, and diction of design in the poem always runs up against the “if,” the question marks, and the potent positive associations of “white.”  Perhaps the only thing Frost does resolve, although maybe more for himself than his audience, is that whatever life involves, good or evil, plan or chance, it only truly holds meaning when argued about in detailed philosophical discussions or poems.