and even from self that characterizes many American poems of the 20th century.
The poem is an Italian sonnet, consisting of an octave (eight lines describing a scene or situation) and a sestet (six lines of commentary). The octave describes a micro-cosmic scene, in which a spider on a flower holds up the severed wings of a moth it has caught in the night. Frost employs sardonic similes and metaphors that belie the gruesome character of the scene: One comparison associates the spider's actions with playfulness. Moreover the speaker remarks that such elements of destruction and disease seem quite natural. As Mordecai Marcus observes, "Design" is "[p]erhaps the most often initially misunderstood of Frost's poems . . . because of its apparent matter-of-factness and mock cheerfulness" (152).
In the sestet, Frost's speaker asks a series of questions about the scene and its purport. The flower is normally blue: Why is the one on which the spider caught the moth an anomalous albino? Why did the moth alight on this flower? Was it drawn in the dark by its whiteness? Why did the spider choose to climb this flower? Frost's use of verbs suggests a force—divine intervention, fate, natural law—that governs all occurrences. Frost seems to imply that they are not merely happenstances at all. His word for this force is design. He implies with his rhetorical questions that the microcosm of the spider, flower, and moth may be extrapolated to the macrocosm of human fate. It is perhaps this recognition that proves most frightening to the speaker and, by extension, to the reader. As the critic Lionel Trilling once observed in a speech in Frost's honor, "I think of Robert Frost as a terrifying poet. . . . The universe that he conceives is a terrifying universe. Read the poem called 'Design' and see if you sleep the better for it" (qtd. in Lynen 189-190).
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