Richard Poirier: On "Design"

"Design" is one of the best poems in A Further Range, giving evidence, as we have heard Frost say of himself in 1959, of a "new way to write." And yet the poem was actually first printed American Poetry 1922, A Miscellany. What changed between 1922 and 1936 was not the poem but Frost's feelings about it, his decision, at last, to lay full claim to it. But even in 1950 he can say, with remarkable casualness, that he had forgotten it until "someone turned it up and began to get it said about and I put it in the book" (Cook, p., 126).

But what exactly does he mean by "it"? There are in fact two remarkably different versions of "it," the earlier of which goes back even before 1922 - a poem called "In White," which he sent to Susan Ward with a letter dated January 15, 1912. At the time of composition Frost was teaching William James's Psychology ("Briefer Course") and Talks to Teachers on Psychology to his students at Plymouth Normal School in New Hampshire. He was also reading Pragmatism. Along with the works of Emerson and Thoreau, Pragmatism was a source of metaphors for him and for certain exercises of mind in his poetry. In Lecture Three, "Some Metaphysical Problems Pragmatically Considered," Frost came upon a passage that is the likely source for the poem we know as "Design" and for the earlier version called "In White." I will quote first the extensive passage from James and then both versions of the poem:

Let me pass to a very cognate philosophic problem, the question of design in nature. God's existence has from time immemorial been held to be proved by certain natural facts. Many facts appear as if expressly designed in view of one another. Thus the woodpecker's bill, tongue, feet, tail, etc., fit him wondrously for a world of trees, with grubs hid in their bark to feed upon. The parts of our eye fit the laws of light to perfection, leading its rays to a sharp picture on our retina. Such mutual fitting of things diverse in origin argued design, it was held; and the designer was always treated as a man-loving deity.

The first step in these arguments was to prove that the design existed. Nature was ransacked for results obtained through separate things being co-adapted. Our eyes, for instance, originate in intrauterine darkness, and the light originates in the sun, yet see how they fit each other. They are evidently made for each other. Vision is the end designed, light and eyes the separate means devised for its attainment.

It is strange, considering how unanimously our ancestors felt the force of this argument, to see how little it counts for since the triumph of the Darwinian theory. Darwin opened our minds to the power of chance-happenings to bring forth 'fit' results if only they have time to add themselves together. He showed the enormous waste of nature in producing results that get destroyed because of their unfitness. He also emphasized the number of adaptations which, if designed, would argue an evil rather than a good designer. Here, all depends upon the point of view. To the grub under the bark the exquisite fitness of the woodpecker's organism to extract him would certainly argue a diabolical designer.

Theologians have by this time stretched their minds so as to embrace the darwinian facts, and yet to interpret them as still showing divine purpose. It used to be a question of purpose against mechanism, of one or the other. It was as if one should say "My shoes are evidently designed to fit my feet, hence it is impossible that they should have been produced by machinery." We know that they are both: they are made by a machinery itself designed to fit the feet with shoes. Theology need only stretch similarly the designs of God. As the aim of a football-team is not merely to get the ball to a certain goal (if that were so, they would simply get up on some dark night and place it there), but to get it there by a fixed machinery of conditions -- the game's rules and the opposing players; so the aim of God is not merely, let us say, to make men and to save them, but rather to get this done through the sole agency of nature's vast machinery. Without nature's stupendous laws and counterforces, man's creation and perfection, we might suppose, would be too insipid achievements for God to have proposed them.

This saves the form of the design-argument at the expense of its old easy human content. The designer is no longer the old man-like deity. His designs have grown so vast as to be incomprehensible to us humans. The what of them so overwhelms us that to establish the mere that of a designer for them becomes of very little consequence in comparison. We can with difficulty comprehend the character of a cosmic mind whose purposes are fully revealed by the strange mixture of goods and evils that we find in this actual world's particulars. Or rather we cannot by any possibility comprehend it. The mere word 'design' by itself has no consequences and explains nothing. It is the barrenest of principles. The old question of whether there is design is idle. The real question is what is the world, whether or not it have a designer - and that can be revealed only by the study of all nature's particulars.

Remember that no matter what nature may have produced or may be producing, the means must necessarily have been adequate, must have been fitted to that production. The argument from fitness to design would consequently always apply, whatever were the product's character. The recent Mont-Pelée eruption, for example, required all previous history to produce that exact combination of ruined houses, human and animal corpses, sunken ships, volcanic ashes, etc., in just that one hideous configuration of positions. France had to be a nation and colonize Martinique. Our country had to exist and send our ships there. If God aimed at just that result, the means by which the centuries bent their influences towards it, showed exquisite intelligence. And so of any state of things whatever, either in nature or in history, which we find actually realized. For the parts of things must always make some definite resultant, be it chaotic or harmonious. When we look at what has actually come, the conditions must always appear perfectly designed to ensure it. We can always say, therefore, in any conceivable world, of any conceivable character, that the whole cosmic machinery may have been designed to produce it.

Pragmatically, then, the abstract word 'design' is a blank cartridge. It carries no consequences, it does no execution. What design? and what designer? are the only serious questions, and the study of facts is the only way of getting even approximate answers. Meanwhile, pending the slow answer from facts, any one who insists that there is a designer and who is sure he is a divine one, gets a certain pragmatic benefit from the term - the same, in fact, which we saw that the terms God, Spirit, or the Absolute, yield us. 'Design,' worthless tho it be as a mere rationalistic principle set above or behind things for our admiration, becomes, if our faith concretes it into something theistic, a term of promise. Returning with it into experience, we gain a more confiding outlook on the future. If not a blind force but a seeing force runs things, we may reasonably expect better issues. This vague confidence in the future is the sole pragmatic meaning at present discernible in the terms design and designer. But if cosmic confidence is right not wrong, better not worse, that is a most important meaning. That much at least of possible 'truth' the terms will then have in them.

In White

A dented spider like a snowdrop white On a white Heal-all, holding up a moth Like a white piece of lifeless satin cloth-- Saw ever curious eye so strange a sight? Portent in little, assorted death and blight Like the ingredients of a witches' broth? The beady spider, the flower like a froth, And the moth carried like a paper kite. What had that flower to do with being white, The blue Brunella every child's delight? What brought the kindred spider to that height (Make we no thesis of the miller's plight.) What but design of darkness and of night? Design, design! Do I use the word aright?

[Poirier prints "Design" here]

James's extensive influence can be located both in particular images - the statement about eyes, for instance, might have something to do with the last stanza of "All Revelation" ("Eyes seeking the response of eyes") - and in Frost's general disposition. The idea that creation might prove insipid if it did not work against opposition and counterforce (as in getting a ball over a goal line) is similar to Frost's notion of the process of a poem in "The Figure a Poem Makes" or his contention that "Every single poem written regular is a symbol small or great of the way the will has to pitch into commitments deeper and deeper" ("The Constant Symbol"). With respect to "In White" and "Design," the very clumsiness of the first indicates Frost's studious dependency on the passage from James. The line "Saw ever curious eye," for instance (whose? when? where? why?), can escape ridicule only by appeal to some antecedent authority. Such authority lies not, I think, in emblem poems, though "In White" does seem rhetorically to court that form; it lies instead in James's description of the inveterate thrust of investigation and "curiosity." "Nature was ransacked for results," he tells us, adding that "the real question is what is the world, whether or not it have a designer - and that can be revealed only by the study of all nature's particulars." So, too, with the unfortunate word "thesis" in line 12. It carries a nervous reassurance as if to someone checking up on his coverage of the subject, and so does the school-boy display of verbal-philosophical scrupulousness in the last line: "Design, design! Do I use the word aright?"

The later poem is freed of such sophomoric concern about correct usage or responsible modes of perception. By contrast to "In White," "Design" is a rather playful poem, much closer to the charmingly confident willingness in James to allow for alternate or conflicting possibilities. There is less worry about whether the word "design" is used "aright" because the speaker is his own man. If the word is not used "aright," then the responsibility lies in some collusion between reality and the perception of it. As in "The Most of It," reality appears to form itself in shapes that one "finds"; it sends signals that offer, according to how you read them, more than you can cope with and less than you need.

The same is true, of course, for the "design" of a "thing so small" as a poem, particularly a sonnet like this one. Understandably, the poem ends with two questions. The first, while grammatically in the form of a question ("What but design of darkness to appall?"), is more assertive than the second, which is grammatically a conditional clause ("If design govern in a thing so small"). The first question is pronounced by two heavily accented syllables on either end ("What but . . . appall"). And yet the very emphasis on "appall" brings with it a demand for attention which, as alternative meanings begin to emerge, dissolves the fright initially induced by the word. It is related to the word "pale" and suggests therefore that in our fright we might become as white as the horrid little cluster of things we are looking at. "Appall" also suggests "pale" in yet other ways, however. A "pale" can be a spike (is that an image of how the spider is "holding up a moth"?) and, most importantly, a "pale" can be a slat in a fence, as every farmer knows. "Darkness" has fenced in or enclosed these "assorted characters." It has given them a "design." Thus, an extended and potentially self-canceling reading of the line would be "What but design of darkness to" . . . design. This would be an extraordinarily witty way to gather up and transform the meanings being groped for in the clumsy ending of the original: "Design, design! Do I use the word aright?" As a tautology the line would also give a still more problematic and sardonic turn to the last line of the poem. A design whose purpose is only to "design" cannot be said to "govern" much of anything, large or small.

A reading of this kind is assisted by James's observation about the woodpecker and the grub, an observation full of that ingratiating, warm-hearted sarcasm of his (so like Emerson of the later and shorter essay "Nature"), when he is exposing the effrontery of human schematizations:"to the grub under the bark the exquisite fitness of the woodpecker's organism to extract him

would certainly argue a diabolic designer." The word "appall" is therefore marvelously apt not only because it can end up meaning "design" but because in doing so it maintains its connotations of terror. The implications of design are "appalling" in every sense if we try to infer from any assortment of things the presence of something or someone, a Creator who "governs." Melville and the "whiteness" of his whale are a glimmering presence here, much as in "For Once, Then, Something," a poem written in 1917, between "In White" and "Design": "What was that whiteness? / Truth? a pebble of quartz? For once, then, something." In this poem, written in hendecasyllabics -- Frost's affectionate nod to Catullus -- there is, as in "Design," the enticement of significances simultaneously denied by the tone and the terms in which they are offered, as note the comic alliteration of "w" and how an assertive beginning ("For once, then,") gives way to the hesitancy of the word "something."

From Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. Copyright © 1977 by Oxford University Press.

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Criticism Overview
Title Richard Poirier: On "Design" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Richard Poirier Criticism Target Robert Frost
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 30 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing
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