Skip to main content

This designing poem has lured generations of readers to contemplate death, order, evil, and the nature of poetry. The three elements of nature, all sideshow freaks, combine in a whimsical and dreadful drama of murder that is fostered by the sensibility of the speaker-poet. As if stirring "a witches' broth," conjuring a spell that captivates not simply the protagonists but the reader-listener as well, he elicits the tragicomic scene whose ostensible inadvertence mirrors the whimsical relationship between himself and the reader. Taking back with one hand what he gives with the other, Frost offers a "dimpled spider," "a flower like a froth," and "dead wings carried like a paper kite." The mood is fostered by this bizarre conjunction of images, in which the spider is like a baby (a jab at sentimental "dead baby" poem's? at his own "Home Burial"?), the flower is like food (or, more ominously, foam at the mouth of a madman), and the "dead wings" (reminiscent of Clara Robinson's poetry in "A Fountain") are a child's toy. All of these come together in a line that sounds like a jingle for breakfast cereal: "Mixed ready to begin the morning right."

The rhetorical gestures of the second stanza enforce our uncertainty and the narrator's power, for the questions suggest a knowledge of which we cannot partake, as he simultaneously claims membership in a secret society whose rituals confound the ordinary eye as he mocks that membership. We are provided a glimpse into the sacred chambers, however, with the second question: "What brought the kindred spider to that light, / Then steered the white moth hither in the night?" The controlling consciousness is, of course, the poet's own, as his apparently innocuous first words indicate: "I found." We might read right over this opening, and even later we might be tempted to emphasize the role of chance in the configuration of characters. But, as the poem progresses, retrospection insists that we assign ultimate weight to the "I," the mediating poetic consciousness that creates the utterly strange (and beautiful-ugly) meeting. By "finding" spider, moth, and flower, he becomes their creator, for his words bring them into daylight, onto the whiteness and blankness of the page. Hence, the last question and its "answer," "What but design of darkness to appall?-- / If design govern in a thing so small," at once expresses doubt and satisfaction at his own magic in the recreation of the scene, just as the ambiguity of "appall" challenges the reader to interpret "correctly": Does it mean "to shock"? "To make white?" "To kill?" All of the preceding?

The sestet meditates on the issue of design, for the rhyme scheme is overdetermined, having little variation, while the stress system of the last line, and particularly the emphasis on "if," remains entirely ambiguous. Having pulled back the curtain on his Wizard of Oz ever so slightly, the speaker leaves us, like Dorothy, to contemplate our own method of escape from Oz itself. The poet is a performer, a confidence man, and if we are drawn into the world of the poem, we have been "had"--and I always am.

Professional readers as a whole, I think, find this verbal intercourse irresistible. Nevertheless, even a perfunctory review of "Design" underlines its radical difference from the narrative poems: human relationships and other voices are erased in favor of intellectual challenge. The feminine voice that concerns itself with labor and love and that enacts a generous relationship with the reader metamorphoses into the ingenious and virtuoso poet. As Walton Beacham remarks, "'Playing' involves the whole spirit, while 'playfulness' can be the result of detached observation without real commitment to the game."



From Karen L. Kilcup. Robert Frost and the Feminine Literary Tradition. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998: 213-216.