Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Robert Frost: Design

Consider the curious and macabre effects of Robert Frost's use of "white" in the following poem:


I found a dimpled spider, fat and white, 
On I white heal-all, holding up a moth 
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth— 
Assorted characters of death and blight 
Mixed ready to begin the morning right, 
Like the ingredients of 1 witches' broth— 
A snow-drop spider, a flower like froth, 
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white.
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height. 
Then steered the white moth thither in the night? 
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.

Robert Frost (1874-1963)

The poem begins casually enough, "I found,' but then turns suddenly by associating a positively connotated term, "dimpled" (cute, charming), with a distinctly negative creature (to most humans), the spider. The spider, moreover, is described as white and fat, a description that reverses our usual expectations. The combination of dimpled, white, and fat suggests not a spider but perhaps a prospering, well-fed, harmless baby. The spider rests on a flower called a "heal-all" (an ironical name for this deadly occasion), which is usually blue, though in this instance it is white, as is the moth being held up by the spider in what seems to be a gesture of triumph, the moth a kind of trophy of conquest. The moth is rigid, dead, but is associated with "satin," a rich and expensive cloth that is typically worn on formal occasions or used to line coffins. Spider, moth, and heal-all are (lightly) described as "assorted characters" of (more heavily) "death and blight." Line 5 seems to be describing a breakfast concoction, "Mixed ready to begin the morning right," which turns out to be a witches' "broth." The same play of negative and positive occurs in "snow-drop spider" (line 7) and in the flower's association with "froth." The next line reminds us that the moth is, after all, only "dead wings," lifeless like a paper kite (a happy plaything of children).

There are other possible implications in these lines—for example, the presence of witches may activate a heard connection between "satin" and "Satan." Satan is traditionally seen as the prime cause of "death and blight," and the poet will later speculate that the.convergence of moth, spider, and flower may have been calculated, have been a "design of darkness" (Satan is the Prince of Darkness).


1. What opposing connotations do you sense in "snow-drop spider"? in "flower like froth" (line 7)?

2. Check the dictionary meanings of "appall." Which relate to the context Frost has been developing?

3. Lines 9-13 are structured as three questions. Which of the three is less a question than an assertion? Explain.

4. In what sense is line 14 both a question and an assertion?