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Design by Robert Frost: Summary, Theme & Analysis

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  • 0:00 Summary of Design
  • 1:25 Structure
  • 2:45 Analysis And Themes
  • 4:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Anderson
In Robert Frost's poem Design, the speaker wrestles with a spiritual question: Does God really watch over us? Frost's poem begins innocently and ends on a haunting note. We'll analyze the poem and look at its themes.

Summary of 'Design'

Before we begin our summary, take a look at Frost's poem in its entirety:

'Design' by Robert Frost (1922)

'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.'

In Frost's first stanza, which is a group of lines in a poem, the speaker opens by describing a white spider hunting a white moth on a heal-all. The heal-all is a flower with medicinal properties. The flower holds the moth, but nothing can stop the dark forces of nature, or in this case, the hungry spider. When the speaker mentions the witches' broth, Frost implies that darkness lurks everywhere. Humanity, according to Frost, is as unprotected as the moth on a flower and as dangerous as the spider.

Structure

Frost's 14-line poem is called an Italian sonnet, also known as a Petrarchan sonnet. This kind of sonnet is composed of two stanzas. The first eight lines make up one stanza, while the second stanza is six lines.

Frost's sonnet follows the traditional rhyme structure. The first line, 'A,' rhymes with the fourth line. The second and third lines, 'B,' also rhyme. This rhyme pattern is referred to as 'ABBA' and continues on within the next four lines, meaning the rhyme scheme is 'ABBAABBA' for the first stanza.

In the second stanza, the rhyme pattern shifts. We keep the 'A' rhyme from the first stanza in the first, third and fourth lines, and introduce a new rhyme in the second, fifth and sixth lines. That means the rhyming pattern of the second stanza is 'ACAACC.'

The sonnet ends with a rhyming couplet. A rhyming couplet is the last two lines of a sonnet and generally serves to wrap up the poem's overall theme. In addition to the sonnet's strict rhyme scheme, the sonnet also follows iambic pentameter, which means each line is ten syllables, five unstressed syllables and five stressed syllables.

Analysis and Themes

While Frost's poetry is very traditional in form, the poet is known for his dark and modern take on universal themes such as the existence of God. 'Design' is no exception. Frost's traditional sonnet is a metaphor for the narrator, in his own way, trying to control and understand nature's chaos.

The poem's imagery of a white spider suggests that even within evil, there is goodness and purity. While the moth represents the spider's prey, Frost also mentions the medicinal flower, the heal-all, which suggests that life is full of both evil and innocence. The moth and the spider become a symbol for humanity. In other words, we are all products of these natural forces, not spiritual design. The last couplet,

'What but design of darkness to appall?

If design govern in a thing so small'

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