Tuesday, May 11, 2021

About the Poem “Design” From Robert Frost

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In the fifth line of the poem “Design”, an invisible hand enters. The characters are “mixed” like ingredients in an evil potion. Some force doing the mixing is behind the scene. The characters in themselves are innocent enough, but when brought together, their whiteness and look of rigor mortise are overwhelming. There is something diabolical in the spider’s feast.

The “morning right” echoes the word rite, a ritual – in this case apparently a black mass or a Withces’ Sabbath. The simile in line seven is more ambiguous and harder to describe. Froth is white, foamy, and delicate – something found on a brook in the woods or on a beach after a wave recedes. However, in the natural world, froth also can be ugly: the foam on a polluted stream or a rabid dog’s mouth. The dualism in nature – its beauty and its horror – is there in that one simile.

So far, the poem has portrayed a small, frozen scene, with the dimpled killer holding its victim as innocently as a boy holds a kite. Already, Frost has hinted that nature may be, as Radcliffe squires suggests, “nothing but an ash- white plain without love or faith or hope, where ignorant appetites cross by chance”. Now, in the last six lines of the sonnet, frost comes out and directly states his theme.

What else could bring these deathly pale, stiff things together “but design of darkness to appall?” the question is clearly rhetorical; we are meant to answer, “Yes, there does seem an evil design at work here!” I take the next-to-last line to mean, “What except a design so dark and sinister that we’re appalled by it?” “Appall”, by the way, is the second pun in the poem: it sounds like a pall or shroud. Steered carries the suggestion of a steering-wheel or rudder that some pilot had to control. Like the word brought, it implies that some invisible force charted the paths of spider, heal-all, and moth, so that they arrived together.

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