Reuben A. Brower: On "Design"

This is a poem of finding evil in innocence, a song of experience, though the voice is hardly that of Blake’s child-like singer. At first we hear the cheerfully observant walker on back-country roads: ‘I found a dimpled . . .’ The iambic lilt adds a tone of pleasant surprise: ‘I found a dimpled darling’—‘Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet!’ But in ‘spider’ the voice betrays itself, and in ‘fat’ and ‘white’ the dimpled creature appears less charming. On a small scale the first line, like the whole poem, builds up a joke in tone, rhythm, and image that grows into a ‘joke’ of another sort.

In the octet the joking discovery develops gradually through a series of contradictory pictures. ‘A white heal-all’ suggests purity and safety, though the color echoes the white of the swollen spider. A satin-white moth has its charm, too, a party-going creature poised like Wordsworth’s butterfly on its flower; but ‘rigid’ is too frozen, too easily reminiscent of rigor mortis or the stiff shining satin of a coffin. In the aside of the next three lines, the speaker gives away his joke, but he does it jokingly, again partly by tricks of rhythm. First there is the very correct iambic on line 4,

Assorted characters of death and blight . . .

in exactly ten syllables, every other one of which must be stressed, a little as in doggerel. The plain truth of the statement takes on a cheerful sing-song quality, an effect increased in the next line by reversing the stress and omitting the short in ‘Mixed ready.’ The tone now becomes quite jaunty, but ‘right’ hovers on a pun for ‘rite,’ as the poet mixes a brew worthy of the Weird Sisters, Shakespeare’s most evil images of evil. The adding of unstressed syllables speeds up and lightens the next line to soften the ugliness of what is being said:

Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth . . .

And with

A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,

more oblique joking is resumed in images of springtime freshness (‘snow drop,’ ‘flower-like,’ we hear). But the spider is there, and the fragility of ‘froth’ hardly conceals the link with venom. A surface of elegant gaiety is kept up, however, through symmetry of sound, as o’s and I’s, alliterated syllables, and apparent compounds are balanced in each half of the verse. Again we are brought up short with ‘dead wings,’ and if kites are fun, a ‘kite’ is also a bird of prey, and ‘a paper kite’ is another image of death-like rigidity.

The sextet brings the expected change in tone, now no longer easily observing and half-singing though in mockery, but self-questioning and increasingly serious. The first question (‘What had the flower to do . . .’) sounds like ordinary annoyance at a face that doesn’t fit in, though ‘white’ out a place begins to seem like ‘black.’ The next question (‘What brought the kindred spider . . .’), in a voice of lost innocence, brings a new note and a harsher irony with ‘kindred’ (as if the sweet flower and the spider had conspired to arrive at exactly that height and place). ‘Steered’ is more sinister, and with the last question ironic puzzlement turns into vision:

What but design of darkness to appall?—

Alliteration picks out salient impressions to give older theological and Emersonian arguments a reverse twist—‘Design, yes—but for evil.’ But the natural theologian pauses—he is only asking, not asserting—and takes a backward step:

If design govern in a thing so small.

It may after all be absurd to see so much in a flower, a moth, and a spider. But the ‘if’ stands out oddly because of the reversal of stress and because of the pause for the loss of a syllable,

If design || govern . . .

There is a glimmer of a further joke: ‘If design govern in anything at all . . .’—the subjunctive and a second reversal of stress alert us to the doubt. The soothingly humorous hesitation points to something many readers may find less agreeable than design of darkness, to no order whatever.

Few poems by Frost are more perfectly and surely composed, few where the figure in the mind and in the ear are better matched. Consider, for example, the daring use of the same end-rhymes, half the total number on a single sound. Though the repetitions in the octet can be matched in other poets, the surprise comes with the rhyme in line 9, which is picked up again in 'height' and 'night.' This persistent echo might be merely curious if it didn't come in so many words that in idea and image play with the disturbing discovery of the poem: words and things that ought to mean 'good' turn out to be 'evil.' The equations of rhyme and of i-sounds within lines (ten of them!) link the ingredients of this witches' broth in insidious confusions (white=blight=right(rite)=height=night). Notice too the surprising and apt use of the many double and triple stresses on successive syllables, from 'White heal-all' through 'snow-drop spider' to ‘white moth thither.' The weighting of rhythmic emphasis in these words, many of them evoking seemingly slight and charming images, directs attention to possible ugliness in ‘things so small.’

From The Poetry of Robert Frost: Constellations of Intention. New York: Oxford UP, 1963. Copyright © 1963 by Reuben A. Brower

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Criticism Overview
Title Reuben A. Brower: On "Design" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Reuben A. Brower Criticism Target Robert Frost
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 30 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Poetry of Robert Frost: Constellations of Intention
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