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Poetry Analysis: “Design” by Robert Frost

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Instructions from professor: Write an essay (at least 3 pages) – Analyze one stanza of the poem, focusing on its meaning and on the way the details of the stanza contribute to its meaning. Discuss what this stanza contributes to the poem as a whole.

Robert Frost’s poem, “Design,” is about the hardships of everyday life and the fact that God or some greater being has created nature to work in a coordinated manner from the tiniest insect up to the most powerful of mankind. It also implies that man should take a hard look at how he cares for his own kind as well as for the total environment, and that he might be “appalled” at what he sees, leading his conscience to dictate behavioral changes.

The speaker of this poem is an unknown narrator, who could be male or female, describing a quick encounter with a hungry spider. In the first stanza, the speaker seems to be addressing the reader, telling the story. However, the second stanza (separated from the first by a blank line or thoughtful pause) is more introspective, and the speaker, while thinking to himself, has shifted his focus to the flower’s responsibility in the setting and is trying to make sense of the part of nature he has observed. The spider is “holding up a moth” as if to show to the world that he is dominant; he has defeated his prey and is proud of it. The moth is described as “a white piece of rigid satin cloth,” suggesting not only the rigidity of a now-dead insect, but also his resistance to the spider’s attack.

At the same time, the moth is delicate and soft, conversely suggesting that he may not have had the physical strength to ward off the spider’s attack and that his death was imminent. How much of a victory is it when a physically stronger being kills another who could not possibly have won the fight? It may be a physical victory – the spider has killed his dinner – but there exists an underlying question of moral victory, which is a strictly human phenomenon. This concept parallels human behavior at all ages when the strong bully the weak.

The title, “Design,” and reference to it in the final line indicate that a higher power has set up nature (and our human culture) to govern behavior so that the strong will survive. This is the way things are meant to be. The tone of the first stanza (eight lines of this 14-line sonnet) is one of pride. The speaker relates to the struggle of the spider that has performed his duty to survive in an environment of predators and prey. The spider stands on a plant called a “heal-all,” yet the death of the moth cannot possibly be healed. He carries the dead moth back to his lair effortlessly “like a paper kite,” reiterating the delicacy and lightweight nature of the prey and the ease of the kill.

The speaker describes the disorganized mix of creatures that begin their day by intermingling “like the ingredients of a witches’ broth.” A witches’ broth would be a partial suspension rather than a fully dissolved and integrated solution, which, when stirred, would cause the individual components to bounce off each other to combine and relate in an infinite number of variations, some meant to survive and others not. This is analogous to people going to work, school, or out into a society that may be so hostile as to actually cause the demise of some of its participants. The Golden Rule – “treat others as you would have them treat you” – is essential to the survival of all of the world’s inhabitants.

The poem is written in iambic pentameter, but there are places of barely perceptible deviation from the rules. For example, there are fourteen lines that each consist of ten syllables, except for lines six, seven, and eleven, where the reader must either speed up to fit two words into one beat of the meter or read the two-syllable word “flower” as one syllable (“flow’r”). The use of alternating stressed and unstressed syllables is changed slightly in some lines so that two unstressed words are uttered sequentially (“On a…” on line 2, and “Like a…” on line 3); then a few beats later either a very slight pause or two stressed words puts the meter back on track for the remainder of the line. The use of a blank space between lines eight and nine allows the reader to pause for a change of focus and tone ?

From the prideful and chaotic struggle of the interacting creatures in the first stanza to the thoughtful introspection of how the scenario fits into all of life in the second. The rhyme scheme of the first eight lines repeats an A B B A pattern; however, the second stanza is in an almost random pattern of A C A A C C, which creates a slight disharmony in conjunction with the overall tone of the work. These deviations add to the feeling of commotion or imbalance as the characters interact, make the poem easier to read as prose by alleviating what could become a tedious and boring meter, and allow each reader to experience the poem differently.

Frost uses alliteration in several lines to reinforce the meaning of the line: “Heal-all” and “holding” in line 2, a double-word alliteration of “mixed ready” and “morning right” in line 5, “carried” and “kite” in line 8 are some examples. The “h” sound in the juxtaposed words “heal-all” and “holding” (line 2) are somewhat hard to say and symbolize the struggle of the spider and moth in a battle for life. In fact, many of the alliterations are made from hard sounds and create a sense of movement that reinforces each line’s meaning, such as “snow-drop” and “spider” and “flower” and “froth” on line 7 as well as the assonance of the long “i” sound in “spider” and “white” on line 1 and the short “i” of “mixed” and “begin” on line 5. Repetition of the “f” sound in “flower” and “froth” brings to mind a light, airy feeling. This word painting ties the words together, completing the statement of the individual line and contributing to the musical feel of the poem.

In writing the poem, “Design,” Frost has used the imagery of an aggressive spider that has killed a delicate moth to represent the daily struggle that all human beings face, as humanity consists of both strong and weak. His ponderance of the flower’s role in the moth’s demise by virtue of its attractiveness (contrasting the danger of the spider) shows how everything in the environment works together ? each being is locked in its own battle while contributing to the survival of the other organisms. Frost’s extended metaphor of the human condition is meant to teach mankind to examine his conscience as well as his own role in a greater scheme.

Professor’s comments:

Paragraph 3 – “You drew significant inferences from the emblem of the spider with the moth.”

Paragraph 5 – The professor questioned my use of the word “random” in describing the rhyme scheme of the second stanza.

Paragraph 6 – “Sensitive assessment of the sound strategies.”

Overall paper – “A focused, astute analysis of the meaning of the poem, its significant poetic strategies, and its broad implications.”

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