"Design," a perfectly executed sonnet, is Frost's greatest poem. The title refers to the idea, as William James writes in Pragmatism (1907), that "God's existence has from time immemorial been held to be proved by certain natural facts.... Such mutual fitting of things diverse in origin argued design, it was held; and the designer was always treated as a man-loving deity." The idea of a benign deity is mentioned, for example, in Matthew 10: 29, which teaches that God oversees every aspect of the world, even unto the fate of the most common bird: "Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father" knowing it. The idea of a perfectly created world also appears in Genesis 1: 31, where "God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good." In "The Tyger" (1794) Blake admired the power of a God who could create, in his divine order, the most fierce and gentle hearts, and rhetorically asked: 'Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the Lamb make thee?"
To poets, the spider could represent different purposes in God's design. Whitman's "A Noiseless Patient Spider" is benign; but the Black Widow in Robert Lowell's "Mr. Edwards and the Spider" is a symbol of the damned soul. Frost, like Hardy in "An August Midnight," uses the spider to emphasize the evil aspect of God's design and offers, as Randall Jarrell notes, an "Argument from Design with a vengeance.... If a diabolical machine, then a diabolical mechanic ... in this little Albino catastrophe."
In "Design" the normally black spider and blue heal-all (the ironic name of the medicinal flower) are both wickedly white -- a play on Elinor's maiden name. The spider, fattened by a previous victim, holds a dead white moth like a rigid piece of satin cloth (or a rigid waxy corpse) in a coffin. These three characters of death and blight, like the elements of a witches' broth, are ready to begin the morning right -- or evil rite. Frost asks what evil force made the blue flower white and what malign power brought the spider into deadly conjunction with the moth. His dark answer suggests that this awful albino death-scene refutes Genesis, St. Matthew and the comforting belief recounted by Blake and William James: "What but design of darkness to appall? -- / If design govern in a thing so small." In the horrible but inevitable logic of "Design" Frost replaces God's design with the artist's.
From Robert Frost: A Biography. Copyright © 1996 by Jeffrey Meyers.