Design by Robert Frost: Summary, Theme & Analysis

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Amy Anderson
Expert Contributor
Jenna Clayton

Jenna received her BA in English from Iowa State University in 2015, and she has taught at the secondary level for three years.

Robert Frost's 'Design' contemplates the beauty and terror in nature, and by extension, in life. Review a summary of the poem, then analyze its structure and themes. Updated: 10/10/2021

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.

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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?

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Additional Activities

"Design" by Robert Frost Activities

Journal Prompts

Students may choose one or more of the following prompts to answer. For this activity, students should write in complete sentences. Students should also explain their answers thoroughly and use evidence from the poem to support their answers.

  • Explain the main themes in Frost's poem. Use text evidence to support your answer.
  • What is an Italian sonnet, and how is it structured? (include the number of lines and stanzas, meter, and rhyme scheme)
  • Do you agree with the message about humanity that Frost suggests in this poem? Why or why not?

Once students have completed these, open up a whole-class discussion, or allow students to share their responses in small groups.

Write an Italian Sonnet

First, review the structure and rules of an Italian sonnet with your students (number of stanzas and lines, rhyme scheme, and meter). To help students focus on a subject, they can decide to write an Italian sonnet with themes similar to "Design," or they can write a poem with the opposite message. For example, the main theme of the poem relates to the fact that humanity is unprotected, dangerous, and evil. Students can choose to write about the disorder of society, or they can write about the goodness of society. Depending on your students' ability, you can leave out the requirement to write in iambic pentameter as this is quite a difficult task. Of course, you can give students the option to write in iambic pentameter if they wish to challenge themselves.

TPCASTT Poetry Analysis

A great way to analyze a poem is through the TPCASTT strategy. This approach allows students to critically analyze a seemingly-difficult poem. TPCASTT is an acronym that stands for title, paraphrase, connotation, attitude/tone, shifts, title (again), and theme. Before reading the poem, students should look at the title and predict what the poem will be about. Next, students will paraphrase the poem line by line. They may need to look up difficult or unfamiliar words. Students are now analyzing the connotation of the words in the poem as well as interpreting any figurative language. Following connotation is an analysis of the author's overall tone. Next, students hunt for a shift in the author's attitude. Finally, students revisit the meaning of the title before evaluating the author's themes.

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