John C. Kemp: On "Design"

The sonnet "Design" fully deserves the unusual compliment Randall Jarrell has paid it--"The most awful of Frost's smaller poems"--because it so skillfully and movingly recreates the observer's response to what he finds in his walks. And we should not forget that Thoreau also realized that nature could be frightening. In The Maine Woods, for instance, he wrote of his discovery on the lonely peak of Mt. Katahdin that "Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful," and he described the killing of a moose as a "tragedy" that "affected the innocence, destroyed the pleasure" of his adventure. Similarly, the speaker in Frost's "Design" has found in his travels not El Dorado but a tragedy (or, as he presents it, a kind of Gothic horror story) enacted by the spider and the moth, which has indeed "affected the innocence, destroyed the pleasure" of his morning walk.

The discovered tragedy of "Design," the lugubrious "morning rite" (to respell the pun at the end of line 5), elicited from Frost one of his most brilliantly crafted and vividly imagined poems. Its technical sophistication and imagistic complexity have received wide critical attention (most notably from Randall Jarrell, Reuben Brower, and Richard Poirier). But as an example of his approach to his region, his living "at home like a traveler," it shows how much he could accomplish when, instead of posing as regional spokesman, he concerned himself with a speaker in the process of responding to things found through Thoreauvian exploration.

The obvious contrast in "Design" is between declarative and interrogative. The octave is a single, smooth-flowing, descriptive sentence. We can associate its tone of detachment and objective restraint with the voice of the conventionally impassive New Englander. The sestet, however, is a series of questions that reveals a strikingly idiosyncratic blend of emotions: horror, dismay, passionate curiosity, and agonized bewilderment. But in light of Frost's comments on "The Death of the Hired Man" in his Paris Review interview, especially those concerning the opposition of Warren's masculine, paternal attitude and Mary's feminine, maternal sympathy, we might contrast the rather stern stoicism at the beginning of "Design" with the distressed compassion that dominates the sestet. In the ninth line, for the first time, an emotional response to the observed situation is suggested, and the language becomes more urgent and more overwrought than it was in the octave--more like the language of Mary, Amy, and the other wives in North of Boston:

What had that flower to do with being white, The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?

The triple modification of line 10 is a meaningful gauge of the persona's grief and distress. Shifting from the physical ("wayside blue") to the metaphysical ("innocent"), from concrete, descriptive accuracy to abstract, attributive exaggeration, the line constitutes a brief lament, a plea that establishes once and for all the speaker's sympathies. This prolonged appositive structure heightens the impact of the preceding line's interrogative outburst, reaching a climax of anguished intensity in the pathetic fallacy of "innocent." Innocence might seem an irrelevant issue: the flower, after all, is neither innocent nor guilty. Only to the human imagination could this natural scene involve criminality and evil. Only the anthropomorphizing mind would dispute whether the flower was an innocent bystander or a sinister accomplice, luring victims to the scene of the crime. What Frost ingeniously reveals in these lines is that his speaker's innocence is at stake, threatened not so much by evil as by his own ability to create a sense of villainy and malevolence in the universe. And the central issue is the speaker's ability to withstand the experience of evil, an experience greatly strengthened by his own imagination.

The sestet's repetitious questions (ll. 9, 11, 13) are slightly strained in diction, syntax, and logic--evidence of the speaker's horror and dismay at the sinister force deducible from the observed scene. This emotion is conveyed by strange predicate structures: "What had that flower to do with. . . . What brought the kindred spider. . . then steered the white moth thither. . . ." Curiously, but with telling effect, the reference of the pronoun "what" changes: first it pertains to essentially natural (botanical, horticultural) causes for the color of the flower (l. 9); but then it relates to an awesome, supernatural power--perhaps a godlike being, perhaps a sinister anthropomorphic force--capable of "bringing" the spider and "steering" the moth to their horrifying encounter.

As the speaker phrases his questions in the sestet, the cause of his tormented response to what he has seen becomes clear. We realize that he expects no answers. His mode of questioning betrays both his sense of futility and his reluctance to admit defeat. Thus Frost prepares us effectively for the ambivalent conclusion of the final couplet: what has happened bespeaks either a sinister design or, worse, the absence of design.

If the sestet's speaker is not explicitly an outsider, he at least reveals sympathies and emotional commitments that make it difficult for him to accept things as they are. The octave, however, much lighter in tone, shows touches of wit and what Brower terms "joking discovery." Yet even within these lines there is something of the same tension that is responsible for the contrast of octave and sestet, although it is evident here only insofar as the speaker's matter-of-fact tone (the tone we might associate with Warren) is threatened by his fascination with the terrifying symbolism of what he has found. Faintly, but significantly nonetheless, he reveals sympathies more appropriate to Mary than Warren, sympathies exposed more openly in the sestet. He shows the tendency to "overdo it a little" of which Amy was accused in "Home Burial" (l. 62). His four similes ("Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth," "Like the ingredients of a witches' broth," "like a froth," "like a paper kite") and several of his other images ("holding up a moth," "Assorted characters," "mixed ready to begin," "a snow-drop spider," "dead wings") are not as offhand as they seem. The ironies and the complex ambiguities of the language converge on an entirely human sense of evil and dark design. The persona who compares a dead moth with a "white piece of rigid satin cloth" can hardly be as lighthearted as his casual, unemotional tone might suggest--not given the deathly connotations of rigidity and the funereal associations of satin cloth.

Ultimately, the octave of "Design" has such imagistic force that it asks "in all but words" the same fundamental questions posed in the sestet. The speaker is reluctant to pose these questions and to face them openly, and we suspect that his wittily disguised reticence in the first eight lines arises from his underlying fear, which he discloses only (and tentatively even then) in the sonnet's final line, that there is less design in the world than he can bear. His tendency as an explorer and observer is to make too much of the "design of darkness" he discovers in the world around him. Unable to convince himself that the pattern he sees is mere whimsy, he is deeply distressed by it. As a practical insider, however, he sees the futility of overinterpretation and of too much emotional involvement with what he observes. His final doubt--"If design govern in a thing so small"--is doubly ironic. First of all, it concludes this poem about "Design" with a seemingly casual yet--because of its climactic position--very forceful suggestion that design does not govern anything. But, it is also ironic that a rejection of design should be couched in such an ingeniously designed sonnet (one of English poetry's most intricate forms, especially when only three rhymes are employed). Surely design has governed the speaker's mind, and as a Thoreauvian traveler, he has responded deeply to it; yet, simultaneously, as a practical, hardheaded Yankee, he disapproves of his own response. Throughout nine of the sonnet's fourteen lines, he resists the appallingly dark design, first by making light of it (through the octave's wit and whiteness), and finally (l. 14) by suggesting that it is at most a figment of his own imagination. This complex work blends regional and nonregional perspectives so effectively that the piece will not seem to be a New England poem at all unless we recognize that much of its crucial tension derives from the poet's sensitivity to a subtle conflict of voices (or tones of voice), a sensitivity nurtured by his regional experience.

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Criticism Overview
Title John C. Kemp: On "Design" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author John C. Kemp Criticism Target Robert Frost
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 30 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Robert Frost and New England: The Poet as Regionalist
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