“Design, ” by Robert Frost (1936)
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–
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.
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 lived a life filled with hardship, grief, and loss. His Father died of tuberculosis when Frost was only eleven years old, leaving his family with only eight dollars. His mother died of cancer when he was 16. In 1920, Frost had to commit his sister to a mental hospital, where she died nine years later.
Mental illness ran in his family; both Frost and his mother suffered from depression; his daughter was committed to a hospital in 1947; and Frost’s wife also fought with depression.
Frost had six children with his wife. His son Elliot (1896-1904) died of cholera before he was ten; his son Carol (1902-1940) committed suicide at age thirty eight; his daughter Marjorie (1905-1934) died of of puerperal fever after giving birth at age twenty nine; his daughter Elinor (1907) died three days after her birth. Only two of his children outlived him: Lesley (1899-1983) and Irma (1903-1967). And his wife developed breast cancer in 1937, and died of heart failure in 1938.
By the time Frost first published “Design” in 1936, he had already lost three children and his wife, to say little of the other struggles of his life: the early loss of his parents, and the mental illness and depression that filled his world. His impression of this “Design” of nature is dark and deep, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Yet through his poetry he manages to find something lovely in nature: and this is what people emphasize when reading Frost’s poetry. We are all familiar with his famous lines in his poem “The Road Not Taken,” where he chooses to take the road less travelled by, which has made all the difference. This poem is often taken as a poem of optimism, of the beauty of following one’s own path, validating non-conformity.
There is nothing wrong with reading “The Road Not Taken” in this way, especially when teaching the poem to youth, who are looking to gain the courage to live meaningful lives, and who can be affected to the power of sunrise as many of us nearer sunset have long since forgotten.
There is much to be said for the argument that the author is dead, and that how the poem affects the reader is what counts. Sometimes this is the best way to read, since we weave our own lives as we would interpret them—with or without poetry.
Yet we can gain much by taking account of the facts of Frost’s life and time when we seek to understand what this dead poet would communicate to us.
When we read Frost carefully, we detect cold undercurrents in his river, upon which the Sun sparkles. And if we ignore his darker depth, we might miss his wisdom entirely. He tells us, at the end of his great poem “Stopping by Woods on A Snowy Evening,” that life is “Lovely, dark and deep.” Frost looks into the darkness, and yet shows us how to find it lovely.
Teachers tend not to teach Frost’s poem “Design.” They fear the controversy which the poem, carefully read, would bring to surface out of the cold depth. Teachers, with good reason, want to bring to students poems that will inspire them, show them the goodness of life, and send them out of the classroom beaming with rays of sunlight. And they know that to bring up evolution will bring about arguments so packed with emotion and irrationality that a class may devolve into a profound and designless chaos.
But to get to the power of Frost, we must have the courage to look into the deep, and see how it would testify for itself. What would life have to say for itself? And beautiful nature, lovely, dark and deep?
Frost lived from 1874-1963. He lived in a post-Darwinian world. Unlike William Blake, who published his poem “The Tyger” in 1794, Frost does not take the concept for a designer—or God—as a given. Whereas when Blake looks at nature, in the form of the Tyger, Blake gives us no sense of irony when he reflects on the designer. This is not the case with Frost, who is a poet in the modern age.
Modern poetry and literature is full of irony, which marks a profound shift between ages. Often, modern writers will present what was once a common assumption, and which is yet a commonly held though antiquated assumption, and argue that point so to call out its absurdity and make the case for the opposite.
In Frost’s case, he argues, full of sound and irony, for design—a tale told by . . . who would dare frame nature’s fearful symmetry?
We have to remember that Frost writes this poem in the years just following the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial, which was decided in 1925, a case which pitted modernists and fundamentalists against one another. By 1927, there were thirteen American states which held anti-evolution laws, preventing that our children would be taught the concept, and so be held in the darkness, lovely, but not deep, their way lit with a candle, not an electric light. (Out, out brief candle!)
But Frost is a poet, a great poet, and as such presents an image of the time, and of the progress of the human mind. Just as Shakespeare recognized the veracity of the Copernican Hypothesis in Hamlet, which is a major topic in itself little discussed, Frost recognizes the veracity of the Darwinian theory and the literal mountains filled with evidence for the case.
It is no accident that the great poets of our time are not writing new versions of the Bible, as they did in King James’ time. The King James Bible is a beautiful work of literature, whose lines are crafted by the greatest poets of an age. But in our modern age, the best one can get in a modern translation of the Bible is a grammatically correct version. Even idiots can tell a tale crafted in grammatically correct sentences. Poetry has long since died in religion and has been reborn in the wilderness, crawling with spiders, and snakes.
I have yet to hear a fundamentalist with a shrewd sense of irony. And I take irony to be one gauge of intelligence—which is lacking in the intelligent design movement. The ironic man can hold two concepts in mind simultaneously, and indicate the correct concept by espousing its contradiction.
Frost is full of irony, and the very title of his poem “Design” is ironic. In the poem, Frost tells us of a simple, small observation he makes of nature on a walk one morning. He shows us the macrocosm by focusing on the microcosm. He spots a “dimpled spider.” This spider, with its smiling dimples, has just killed a moth, which has unwittingly flown into the spider’s designed web—to start the morning right.
If we are to take the argument from design seriously, it follows that all of the horror we find in nature is either right, or our lives are but tales told by an idiot. Yet this dichotomy excludes a possibility, which is that the designer is cruel, and that therefore rightness has no real meaning.
Fundamentalists will not concede that God is cruel, for their god is good. Nor will they concede that God is an idiot, for their god is all-knowing. Then if god is not cruel, and is not an idiot, he must be impotent; for what kind of god, who is good and all-knowing, would allow for such suffering and cruelty, except he be impotent?
This forces them into the contradiction. God cannot be good if he is all-knowing, all-powerful, and he allows such cruelty and suffering. The spider cannot have his moth and eat it too, if God is as theists claim.
The white and innocent spider’s dimples are insidiously ironic; it smiles, itself so small, at the grand systems of theology that he can innocently make tumble and fall–without even thinking. The spider is not intelligent; design is not intelligent. Indeed, it is no design at all, for design would require intelligence.
The poem makes use not only of irony, but of pun, one of which is the word “morning,” which suggests “mourning.” Frost is witnessing a funeral in the morning, as he has too many times in his own life. His ironic tone mocks the “rightness” of this mourning in nature’s darkness. Right and wrong make no sense in nature, but are human concepts born of human designs. The universe is indifferent, if beautiful.
The moth appears to Frost like a rigid piece of satin cloth. The moth is stiff, like a corpse, and coffins are lined with satin. There is no justice in the moth’s death, no design, just evolved systems.
If there is to be any justice in the universe, we must create it. And we cannot create a sound system of justice if we do not account for things as we find them. Frost finds an innocent and dimpled spider eating an innocent moth, and finds therein neither design nor justice.
But we can make a better world, make a just world: we can harness the theory of evolution and minimize disease and suffering. Frost suffered the death of his children who died of natural disease. Nothing in their deaths would be unjust, except there be a god, or there be men who stultify the progress of science and medicine.
If there is a god, then this creation is a horrible injustice, and God is a cruel and sadistic murderer. This creation contains all the elements for a witches’ broth, and indicates a tale told by an idiot. Indeed idiots tell one hell of a tale.
If there is not a god, then nature is just nature. In either case, it is unjust that men would prevent the ideas which promise cures to disease from going forth. Insofar as they deny the concepts which would set us free of illusion and give us real cures, for which they are provided sound evidence, they are unjust and criminal, except they were found of unsound mind.