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.
Summary and Analysis
In the sonnet Design the Robert Frost describes a very simple scene from nature – a spider on a flower, holding a moth that it has captured as its prey. It’s a white flower known as ‘heal-all’ and there is a kind of Gothic imagery in Frost’s description, including the truth that all the three elements – the spider, the flower and the moth – are white. ‘White’ is the symbol of compassion and purity, but strangely enough the poet here has related the colour with death. An unemotional and horrifying atmosphere is created while explaining how the moth unknowingly makes its way to the death trap created by the spider on the white flower. This example is set to make everyone realize that nature has made greater designs which are as heartless and malicious as this one. The questions that the poet raises in the second stanza very clearly justifies that nature has designs on living things and so it sets up designs to facilitate killing and death – ‘what brought the kindred spider to that height…./ what but design of darkness to appal?’ – It is the design of nature that has forced the moth to come so high at night to fall a prey into the spider’s net.
Design persistently appeals to, and yet simultaneously questions, the entire American literary tradition which approves the method of symbol reading. It is a clear model of the ‘American emblem poem’ as it is obvious from the techniques used in it – its movement ‘from sight to insight’ reflected in the conventional separation of the sonnet into octave and sestet. It is understood from the expression of the poem that the poet is out wandering alone in nature, and the time is early morning. Though many of Frost’s darkest insights of the natural aspects takes place when night descends, Design is an exception where the poet has used what Thoreau calls ‘the most memorable season of the day, the awakening hour’. The ironical design that Frost uses is very apparent – a wildflower which would usually be blue, a spider which would probably be dark in shade and a moth which might be almost any color: all these are of the same color. And the colour that Frost uses is ‘white’ – the colour of purity and innocence. Such reversed innocence through such a small and even delicate scene, serves only to deliver the message that Frost compels the readers to understand is and it is all the more disappointing –‘design of darkness to appall.’ The created whiteness of a small emblem finally turns out not the whiteness of any normal design but the intricate ‘design of darkness’ and the effect it generates is to ‘appall’ the observer, to make him turn pale with horror at such ‘dark whiteness’.
The final verse, however, creates a threatening call by focusing not just on the apparent example of natural darkness, but the entire epistemological origin of evolution and the design that plays within. The line – ‘If design govern in a thing so small’ – very clearly questions the technique and the final outcome of something so crucial and elementary in life. The actual question that arises in the last line is: whose design is it after all? Is it the design of God or nature or fate or is it the design created by the observer? What is the design and who actually is the designer? The ‘design of darkness’ or that of nature or of God is the design made by the perceiver, and here the observer is the poet. Nature or God might have made some design but it could never be perceived unless an observer like the poet visualises it. It is the human eye that can find out any kind of design that is set in the world of nature. The narrator exposes his role in the poem – ‘I found’; and this very clearly indicates that whatever design has been crafted by nature, it is revealed through a human eye.
The obvious contrast in Design is between declarative and interrogative. Initially there is a kind of assertion when the poet talks about what had happened to the moth when it had reached the while flower and had got entangled in the web of the spider and has thus become its prey. Then gradually the tone becomes questioning as the poet wants to know the design of nature – the moth was doomed to come to the spider’s web; it was already planned by the supernatural forces of nature.