“I always wanted to be very observant,” Robert Frost once said, after reading his poem “Design” to an audience. Then he added: “But I have always been afraid of my own observations.” What might Frost have observed that might scare him? Let’s look at the poem in question and see what we find out.
From the title, “Design”, any reader of this poem will find it full of meaning. As “Webster’s New World Dictionary” defines “Design”, the word can denote, among other things, a plan or “purpose; intention; objective”. Some arguments in favor of the existence of god (recollection of Sunday school) are based on the “argument from design”; that because the world shows a systematic order, there must be a designer who created it. But the word design can also mean “a secret or sinister scheme”, like the one we attribute to a “designer person”. As we will see, Frost’s poem incorporates all of these meanings. His poem raises the old philosophical question of whether there is a designer and an evil designer or there is no designer at all. Frost probably read William James on this point, as one critic has convincingly shown.
Like many other sonnets, “Design” is divided into two parts. The first eight lines draw an image centered on the spider, which at first seems almost cheerful. He has dimples and is fat like a baby or Santa Claus. It stands on a wild flower whose name, cure-all, seems ironic: cure-all is supposed to cure any disease, but it certainly has no power to bring the dead moth back to life. In this second line we also discover that the spider has taken over another creature. We could immediately feel sorry for the moth, if it weren’t for the simile applied to it in line three: “like a white piece of stiff satin cloth.” suddenly, the moth does not become a creature but a piece of cloth, and yet satin has a connotation of beauty. Satin is a luxurious material that is used in rich formal wear, such as coronation gowns and wedding dresses.