Deliberate Ambivalence of Robert Frost's "Design Poem

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¶ … Deliberate Ambivalence of Robert Frost's "Design"

Robert Frost's poem, "Design," is a meditation on some fundamental questions about whether the natural world is governed by a moral order and, if it is, about whether that moral order is beneficent. Written in the first two decades of the 20th century, the poem refers to a contemporary debate about whether nature is organized around a divine plan -- a "design" authored by God. Although the poem ultimately does not take a firm position in this debate, it concludes by expressing caution about whether and to what extent human beings can rely upon their interpretation of the natural world to answer their own questions about what moral order, if any, they should follow.

Much of Frost's poetry involves considering aspects of nature with regard to what they may reveal about the meaning of experience. Frost used different poetic techniques to undertake this consideration. One of those techniques involved looked at a natural object as an "emblem" of some deeper meaning. (Bagby, p. 68-69).

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In such poems, which were widely used by many American poets, the description moves from "sight to insight," treating the qualities of the natural object as opportunities for introspection about human experience and the eternal questions with which human beings must grapple. (Bagby, p. 68-73). One of the most famous American poets to use this technique was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was an important influence on Frost, and who believed that transcendent truths could be understood through an engagement with nature and an introspective inquiry into the meaning of natural events and phenomena. "Design" is "a crucial, and multiply ironic, enactment of and commentary on the whole Emersonian outlook which lies behind Frost's method of making nature lyrics." (Bagby, p. 72).

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The question of natural science which animates "Design" is whether the universe as a whole and the natural world that humans inhabit were created according to a deliberate plan that was formulated by God and that ultimately aims at achieving divine moral purposes. Until the middle of the 19th century, it was taken for granted that the universe was constructed according to a divine plan. (Holder, pp. 1-6). This is because Western culture was dominated by theistic world-view. Theism is the idea that there are supernatural causes for natural events. It includes the idea that they laws of physics and the other sciences cannot operate without metaphysical assumptions. (Holder, p. 2).

Theism included the ontological idea that, there must be a source or origin for everything that exists. According to this principle, if there is an infinite universe, there must be some entity that exceeds the infinite universe, from which the infinite universe came. That entity was God. (Holder, p. 3). Theists believed that God stood behind everything in the natural world. Theism also inspired the idea that certain regular and intricate characteristics of the universe indicate that it must have been designed. The idea that the universe must have had a supernatural "Designer" became one way to help prove the existence of God. This idea became known as the "argument from design." (Holder, pp. 3-4).

William Paley, an English archdeacon of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, developed what is perhaps the most widely-known articulation of the argument from design. Paley described how he was walking across a heath and found a watch on the ground. Upon examining the watch and its complicated mechanism, he realized that such an intricate design must have had an intelligent designer who acted with a purpose -- to build an instrument that would make it possible to tell time. When he later looked at his own hand, he realized that his hand's "design" was far more intricate and complicated than that of the watch, and that the design served an even more self-evident purpose. Consequently, Paley believed that there must have been a designer for all natural phenomena. It made no more sense to conclude that the universe was spontaneously generated than to conclude that a watch could have been constructed by accident. (Holder, pp. 4-5).

Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, which emerged in the middle of the 19th century, provided an effective refutation to the argument from design because it explained a self-directing, unpredictable process by which complex systems could be created without any external direction. According to Darwin, the order of nature was the product of independent natural processes that interacted with each other at random. (Holder, p. 5). Any follower of Darwin's theory of evolution would have to reject the idea that nature was characterized by a beneficent design that God had authored. Darwin's ideas challenged the belief that there were eternal moral truths which always and everywhere characterized human experience. (Hass, pp. 47-48). At the same time, however, Darwin's ideas corresponded with belief in progress of all kinds, especially moral progress. (Hass, p. 48).

The debate over evolutionary theory continued through the end of the 19th century and into the beginning of the 20th century. Much of the debate revolved around whether or not Darwin was correct in his description of the development of species. But the debate also included other subjects, such as whether it was possible to resolve evolutionary theory with the idea that God had developed a plan for natural history. "Design" was written as a response to these debates. (Hass, pp. 60-64).

The poem was first published in a collection entitled, American Poetry 1922: A Miscellaney. (Cramer, p. 112). It was re-published in a Further Range in 1936. Initial drafts of the poem are dated as early as 1912. (Cramer, p. 102). Thus, the poem was first conceived at the height of the debates over the moral meaning of evolutionary theory.

"Design" is structured as an Italian sonnet. In general, a sonnet is a poem of fourteen lines in iambic pentameter. There are two kinds of sonnets: Italian, which include two stanzas of eight (octave) and six (sestet) lines respectively; and the English or Shakespearean, which includes three stanzas of four lines each, known as quartrains, and a couplet. (Burt & Mickics, p. 3). The sonnet was sometimes compared to a syllogism in its intellectual structure. "The sonnet form thrives on, and fosters, debate within the self, a thorny internal monologue." (Burt & Mickics, p. 7). In the English Renaissance, the sonnet often was used to express spiritual struggles. (Burt & Mickics, p. 15).

"Design" reflects the spiritual struggles of the speaker. In the octave, the speaker describes an ambivalent observation of a spider killing its prey, a moth. In describing this natural scene, Frost plays off the traditional meanings of black and white. The scene is characterized by whiteness, which, at first glace, appears benign. The octave begins: "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." The reference to the "dimpled spider" might seem innocent, recalling a dimpled child. Similarly, the reference to the "heal all," a kind of plant reputed to provide cures for illness, resonates with this positive image. and, at first, it is not clear what is happening to the moth. The fact that it is being "held up" and that it looks like a rigid piece of "satin cloth" does not necessarily seem ominous.

But, as the octave goes on, ominous meanings appear. The remainder of the octave refers to images and ideas associated with death and evil: "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." These lines make it clear that the white, dimpled spider is devouring the moth. The images that initially seemed benign are part of a "witches' broth," and it becomes apparent that the rigidity of the moth's wings is due to the fact that it has been killed. Finally, the latter part of the octave reveals that this scene is an ordinary occurrence, a normal part of every day, a fact which is suggested by the line, "mixed ready to begin the morning right." It seems as though the spider's morning meal of moth is akin to the kind of "healthy breakfast" featured in cereal advertisements.

The effect of the scene is to "appall" the speaker (and, by extension, the audience, which sees through the speaker's eyes), making the observers "turn pale or white with dread of such dark whiteness." (Bagby, p. 73). Thus, the scene described in the octave combines optimism and fear. The scene creates a growing awareness that the "designer" of this macabre scene may have malevolent intentions. (Hass, p. 61). This raises the question whether nature was designed at all, and, if it was, whether it was designed for good or evil ends.

In the final six lines, the sestet, the speaker attempts to resolve this ambivalence. But he can only summon additional questions. He finds no real answers to the question whether nature is inherently good or evil:… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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