As I’ve said twice already, the year of my current Pulitzer novel (1936) is really a great year for poetry across the board. We’ve already tackled two of the 20th Century’s great poets—Dylan Thomas and T. S. Eliot. But given our interest in America and Americans here at FP, I’d like to add an authentically American poet to the Welshman and the American expatriate: America’s most praised and beloved poet, Robert Frost, whose A Further Range came out in 1936. There’s plenty here you haven’t read before, and a few you almost certainly have—picking was a real challenge. In the end, I’ve chosen a more familiar piece that I think digs into the darker side of Frost’s thinking, and which I still find a bit chilling and rewarding as a read: the poem is entitled “Design”
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.
Frost’s meticulous attention to the natural world surfaces again, and as it often does, he considers some of the violence that is pervasive in that world—specifically, a spider having caught and killed a moth. He is unsettled by the eerie image: the white spider, holding a white moth, atop a white flower evokes feelings of dread for him, not unlike what Melville (through Ishmael) explores in the 42nd chapter of Moby-Dick, “The Whiteness of the Whale”, which is almost worth reading on its own even if you have no intention of ever reading the whole novel.
Then, reflecting on this image, he asks why such things must be—how it could be that a mutation alters the blue flower to white, that an abnormally white spider finds his way there, that a moth could have flown so close and been snatched out of the air. He sees in this the possibility of what he calls “design”—fate? Predestination? Is this Frost’s suicidal ideation surfacing, as it does in so many of his poems, and perhaps absolving him by suggesting that the pattern of death has already been traced on his life? There’s certainly a very straight-forward way to read this poem as a simple meditation on a frightening image he saw, and what he thinks it may portend.
And yet. And yet, how curious that a poem called “Design” which sees “design” as some dark and magic art, some malicious hand moving the universe, should be so exquisitely designed. Of all the lengths he could have chosen, Frost constrains himself to one of the most famous (the 14 line sonnet), and then imposes on that sonnet a strict rhyming pattern using only three sounds (a Shakespearean sonnet would often use as many as seven or eight rhyming sounds). He never once drops a syllable, conforming to the ten-syllable rule adopted by the Bard (as long as we allow him that “flower” is one syllable, and “ingredients” three, both of which are not excessive cheats, in my opinion). Who is the designer, here, then, and who is subjected to the design? For us, the flower, the spider, the moth are all creatures of Frost’s—they live for us only through his words, they act in accord with his design. He holds up the image of death to us almost as the spider holds the moth to him—an image in white, frozen in time. Does he intend to appall us, and if so, to what purpose? Could anyone intend so dark a purpose from so small a poem?
I ask questions I do not know how to answer, largely because I like that poems give rise to such questions. There is something I do not like about this poem—not “do not like” as in “I am critical of its flaws” but “do not like” as in “it makes me feel uneasy as I read”. I don’t know how far Frost intends us to take the idea of “design”, but the man was a genius for double meanings. Almost all of his greatest poems layer meanings over and over, sometimes very consciously and explicitly. So I wouldn’t be too hasty in rejecting the idea that there is something underneath this poem that has very little to do with what Frost feared the universe was doing to him, and very much to do with what we fear Frost is doing to us in verse. What that means to you, and how far you take it, I leave to your own musings (and I hope that some of them will find their way to the comments).