A designing mind.
In one way, Frost was simply insisting on the symbolic, figurative nature of all poetic language. In the essay "The Constant Symbol," the preface of his Collected Poems of 1946, he called this symbolizing power "ulteriority." The "chiefest" of the things he has to say about poetry, he announces, "is metaphor, saying one thing and meaning another, the pleasure of ulteriority.... Every poem is a new metaphor inside or it is nothing." (3) He doesn't mean just the making of images or using words in multiple senses: the whole poem as a structure is loaded with figurative meaning. Here is how he describes it in "The Constant Symbol": "Every single poem written regular is a symbol small or great of the way the will has to pitch into commitments deeper and deeper to a rounded conclusion and then be judged for whether any original intention it had has been strongly spent or weakly lost; be it in art, politics, school, church, business, love, or marriage--in a piece of work or in a career. Strongly spent is synonymous with kept." (4) Don't be fooled by his folksy locution "every poem written regular." The colloquial grammar smacks of the cracker barrel but the idea is sophisticated: he's talking about the way a poem in a formal meter--"written regular," or, we might say, designed--establishes a set of expectations and obligations that dramatize the poem's deep sense.
I'd like to look at five poems and see how their designs incorporate and perform their sense. I'll go chronologically, from "The Oven Bird" in Frost's third book, Mountain Interval in 1916, and work our way to the poem conveniently entitled "Design," from A Further Range in 1936.
THE OVEN BIRD There is a singer everyone has heard, Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird, Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again. He says that leaves are old and that for flowers Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten. He says the early petal-fall is past When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers On sunny days a moment overcast; And comes that other fall we name the fall. He says the highway dust is over all. The bird would cease and be as other birds But that he knows in singing not to sing. The question that he frames in all but words Is what to make of a diminished thing.
Frost wrote this poem in 1906-7, but didn't publish it until a decade later. What do we notice about it? First, it's a sonnet. At least, it's in fourteen lines based in iambic pentameter. But immediately in this poem about diminishment, we note its own diminishings. It falls short of the conventional sonnet structure, whether Petrarchan (two quatrains and a sestet) or Shakespearean (three quatrains and couplet). Frost's rhyme scheme won't conform to an architecture of quatrains. "The Oven Bird" starts with a couplet--heard/ bird--and then lets the rhyme wander around for the next six lines in no clear pattern until we come to the volta, the break between lines 8 and 9 that would signal a clear shift in argument in a traditional sonnet. Not here. The sentence glides right over the volta: "On sunny days a moment overcast; / And comes that other fall we name the fall." This is a cunning transition, since the syntax implies continuity--it's all one sentence--but the argument takes a dramatic leap from description of nature and the weather ("on sunny days ...") to a portentous, theologically laden intimation of the Book of Genesis: "And comes that other fall we name the fall." The sestet toys with convention again: instead of ending with a couplet, it starts with one--fall/over all--and resolves into a quatrain rhyming ABAB: birds-sing-words-thing.
I may be belaboring the point, but it matters because Frost has made it matter. He announces right in the first line that the poem is concerned with a singer, bird or poet, and he goes on to present us with a bird who frames a question "in all but words": "What to make of a diminished thing." In the process, our poet has offered a diminished, deformed sonnet. It's diminished in other ways beside the rhyme scheme and inner divisions. The rhetoric is considerably toned down from the sometimes exalted language of Frost's first book, A Boy's Will, published in England in 1913. Compare, for example, these lines from "My Butterfly," an early poem:
Thine emulous fond flowers are dead, too, And the deft sun-assaulter, he That frighted thee so oft, is fled or dead ...
This archaizing, poeticized diction belongs to a different universe from the straightforward speaker of "The Oven Bird." This bird, we're told, is a singer, but he's a singer who "knows in singing not to sing," and when he communicates, it's emphatically in speech, not in song: He says, he says, he says. Frost, by this time, had elaborated his theory of "sentence sounds." He talked it over endlessly with his friend Edward Thomas during his stay in England in 1912-15, and articulated it in a letter to his former student John Bartlett in 1914. "A sentence is a sound in itself on which other sounds called words may be strung.... The number of words you may string on one sentence-sound is not fixed but there is always danger of over-loading.... They are apprehended by the ear. They are gathered by the ear from the vernacular and brought into books.... A man is all a writer if all his words are strung on definite recognizable sentence-sounds." (5) The voice in "The Oven Bird," unlike in "My Butterfly," speaks in such recognizable sentence sounds, and in doing so, invents a new way to sing--a new way to be a poet: "The question that he frames in all but words / Is what to make of a diminished thing."
The poem pitches its voice between speaking and singing. Richard Poirier, one of Frost's best critics, has written beautifully about the way Frost plays speech rhythms against the metrical scheme in "The Oven Bird." Poirier connects the imagery of the garden of Eden to the rising and falling patterns of the meter: "It could even be said that the proper poetic image of the Fall and of the human will continually to surmount it is--given accentual-syllabism's unique role in the handling of English rhythm--the mounting from unstressed to stressed syllables in the iambic pentameter line ...
He says/the ear/ly pet/al fall/is past, When pear/and cher/ry bloom /went down/ in show/ers."
"The glory of these lines," continues Poirier, "is in the achieved strain between trochaic words like "early" and "petal," "cherry" and "showers," and the iambic pattern which breaks their fall. The meter is a perfect exemplification of what the poem is about, of the creative tension between a persistent rising and a natural falling--a poise of creativity in the face of threatened diminishments." (6)
Observe how carefully Frost lures us into the Genesis reading. The word "fall" occurs three times: "petal-fall" in line 6, and twice in line 9, just after the volta: "And comes that other fall we name the fall." The effect is subtle; "that other fall" asks to be read as a verbal noun, the action of falling, and "we name the fall" innocently purports to signify nothing more dire than the season of autumn--not necessarily the Fall of Man. Yet to insist so much on "the fall" and on naming it of course implicates the greater fall, and the dust in the next line compounds the Genesis allusion: "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground" (Gen. 2:4), which will become "dust to dust" in the Book of Common Prayer: "He says the highway dust is over all." It's all understated, a perfect demonstration of Frost's delicate designs upon us, his "ulteriority," or as he put it in the Paris Review interview with Poirier in 1960, "hinting": "This whole thing of suggestiveness and double entendre and hinting--comes down to the word 'hinting.'" (7)
"The Oven Bird" ponders diminishment in song, and does it, partly, by taking the traditional sonnet down a notch in structure and diction. It hints, then, at a relation to an earlier, sublime poetry no longer possible in the decadent (fallen) present. The speaker even ventures to measure the falling off: "Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten." At the same time, the poem continuously reminds us of that noble past: in the sonnet form itself, in the Biblical allusion, and in an almost inaudible echo of Virgil's First Eclogue. Frost was an excellent Latinist. He studied Latin in high school in Lawrence, Massachusetts and then at Harvard. Virgil's pastoral poem would have been much in the mind of this American poet who had tried his hand at farming in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. In the first line of Eclogue I, Meliboeus, the shepherd, declares to his friend Tityrus: "... tu, Tityre, lentus in umbra / Formosam resonare docet Amaryllida silvas" (You Tityrus, at ease in the shade, teach the woods to re-echo the name beautiful Amaryllis.) Frost's oven bird in his prosaic eclogue "makes the solid tree trunks sound again." "Sound again" is a perfect translation into the American vernacular of the Latin "resonare."
Frost designed not just poems, but whole books, with infinite cunning. It always matters in his volumes where poems are placed. "The Oven Bird" comes right after "Hyla Brook," a 15-line poem which just misses being a sonnet through magnification rather than diminishment, and which is explicitly concerned with songs that fail to measure up to past glories: "By June our brook's run out of song and speed." Even more than "The Oven Bird," "Hyla Brook" asks us to think about a poetry of the present that seems poor in relation to the past:
Its bed is left a faded paper sheet Of dead leaves stuck together by the heat-- A brook to none but who remember long. This as it will be seen is other far Than with brooks taken otherwhere in song.
The supernumerary 15th line roundly asserts its commitment to the present, whatever its impoverishment: "We love the things we love for what they are."
"Nothing Gold Can Stay," from Frost's fourth collection, New Hampshire, in 1923, also benefits from being read along with its companion poems. Frost placed it immediately after his elegy for Edward Thomas, "For E.T." The friendship between Frost and Thomas stands as one of the great fraternal monuments in modern poetry. Three weeks after Thomas was killed in the Battle of Arras on April 9, 1917, Frost wrote a friend, "Edward Thomas was the only brother 1 ever had." To Thomas's widow Helen, Frost wrote, "He was the bravest and best and dearest man you and I have ever known.... I want to see him to tell him something. I want to tell him, what I think he liked to hear from me, that he was a poet...." (8) Frost and Thomas met in London in 1913 when Frost was almost unknown as a poet, and Thomas, not yet writing poems at all, was exhausting himself supporting his family writing reviews and hack prose books. They met at the perfect time to recognize and foster the poetry in one another. The two men took long walks together, visited back and forth, and talked for hours on end about poetry. Thomas wrote three reviews of Frost's second book, North of Boston, and helped to define the terms of Frost's art for the public. In one review, Thomas wrote, "This is one of the most revolutionary books of modern times, but one of the quietest and least aggressive. ... These poems are revolutionary because they lack the exaggeration of rhetoric, and even at first sight appear to lack the poetic intensity of which rhetoric is an imitation." (9) In another review, he declared, "This is an original book which will raise the thrilling question, What is poetry?" (10) Frost, for his part, gave Thomas the courage to write the poems he had for so long kept locked within himself, and thereby bequeathed to the English language a precious body of work, cut tragically short by Thomas's death in the war. The two men had just the year 1914 and a bit of 1915 to see one another. In February 1915 the Frost family returned to the United States, and soon afterwards Thomas enlisted in the British army. They continued their friendship in letters until Thomas's death, which is why we have a written record of this extraordinary literary comradeship.
All this story lies hidden behind "Nothing Gold Can Stay." The poem preceding it, "To E.T.," explicitly mourns his brother poet: "I slumbered with your poems on my breast / Spread open...." And then comes "Nothing Gold Can Stay."
NOTHING GOLD CAN STAY Nature's first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold. Her early leaf's a flower; But only so an hour. Then leaf subsides to leaf. So Eden sank to grief, So dawn goes down to day. Nothing gold can stay.
In these eight, exquisitely balanced trimeter lines, Frost honors Thomas by observing nature with the kind of precision and brevity at which Thomas excelled. It's a poem mysteriously both general and specific: general, in that all of nature is invoked, and no tree is named; specific, in its description of the hue and early shape of an unfolding leaf. Unlike "Dust of Snow," the eight-line poem which immediately precedes the elegy for Thomas (and also seems, obliquely, to touch on that grief), "Nothing Gold" doesn't divide into quatrains. Its rhyming couplets stitch it into one continuous fabric. Its tight weave is made even tighter by the insistent alliteration: green/gold; hardest/hue/hold; dawn/down/day; grief/goes/ gold. The syntax both establishes and disturbs symmetry: the first two couplets each contain a single sentence; the next sentence fills one line; the following sentence, a run-on, occupies two lines as grief swells the poem: "So Eden sank to grief,/ So dawn goes down to day." The last line is a single emphatic sentence, line and sentence coinciding in a reiteration of the title that has, by now, assumed the force of a proverb: "Nothing gold can stay."
This tiny poem has incantatory power. Part of its grip on the mind comes, I think, from the conflict between holding and losing. The rhyming couplets tie tightly together what time will unfasten. The essential story unfolds in the rhymes: gold/hold; flower/hour; leaf/grief/; day/stay. The words "hold" and "stay" are pitted against the words of time passing, and loss: "hour," "dawn," "day," and against the human response to that passing: "grief."
These are internal designs. But the poem also resonates beyond itself, and beyond its hidden grief for Edward Thomas, to golden echoes of the poetry of the past. Just a generation before Frost's poem, A.E. Housman published an elegiac poem also in eight lines, also in trimeters, a poem we might consider the gold standard for English verse:
With rue my heart is laden For golden friends I had, For many a rose-lipt maiden, For many a lightfoot lad. By brooks too broad for leaping The lightfoot boys are laid; The rose-lipt girls are sleeping In fields where roses fade.
Like Frost, Housman has woven a tissue of alliteration. (11) Unlike Frost, he has given his poem a fluent lilt by including anapests (man / y a ros / lipt; man/y a light/foot), and giving every other line a feminine ending: laden, maiden, leaping, sleeping. Beside Housman's trilling, purling meter, Frost's sounds block-like, a stone wall rather than a brook. Most of his words are monosyllables. The meter is mainly iambic, with this important variation: the first and last lines start with strong trochees, the falling foot, and with the letter N, the reversed stresses hitting hard on this fatal pair of words: Nature, Nothing. Beneath Housman's golden friends and Frost's fleeting gold runs another song, Shakespeare's immortal tune about mortality, the dirge for Imogen-Fidele in Cymbeline: "Golden lads and girls all must,/As chimney sweepers, come to dust." (Cymbeline, IV, 2). Which is to say, lyric lament for lost, golden youth is permanently re-found, and re-founded, in English poetry. Nor is it out of bounds to remember that Frost's early view of poetry was shaped by Palgrave's Golden Treasury of Songs & Lyrics, which contains Shakespeare's lines. Some gold is lost, and some is not.
For a tiny poem, "Nothing Gold Can Stay" does immense work, and compacts a mighty scope of experience into its small frame. "For Once, Then, Something," a very different sort of poem, appears a few pages later in the same volume. We would never mistake this fifteen-line poem for a sonnet. It's written in Latin hendecasyllabics, a meter Frost lifted from Catullus: an eleven-syllable line organized as trochee, dactyl, trochee, trochee, trochee.
FOR ONCE, THEN, SOMETHING Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs Always wrong to the light, so never seeing Deeper down in the well than where the water Gives me back in a shining surface picture Me myself in the summer heaven godlike Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs. Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture Something more of the depths--and then I lost it. Water came to rebuke the too clear water. One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom, Blurred it, blotted !tout. What was that whiteness? Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.
This is a little philosophical drama exploring the possibility, and the limits, of poetic vision, the vatic pretensions of poetry, and its potential narcissism. I particularly remark the image of whiteness, which recalls in miniature Melville's mystery of "the whiteness of the whale" in Moby-Dick. We will find Frost worrying about the metaphysical threat of whiteness when we come to his poem "Design." But let's see how it works, first, in this poem.
To begin with, the title is unusual for Frost. Anne Ferry, in her enduringly fruitful book By Design: Intention in Poetry, devotes a chapter to Frost's titles, and she points out that most of his titles are simple, declarative words or phrases; very few pose the kind of conundrum thrust at us by "For Once, Then, Something." And that is as it should be: the poem narrates a quandary, and draws the reader into its perplexity. We enter the poem in the gush of a six-line sentence--the feeling of forceful on-rush amplified by the meter, which starts each line with a stress and, unlike "Nothing Gold Can Stay," ends each line with a falling feminine foot: well-curbs, seeing, water. We are given a comic portrait of the poet perceived by others: "Others taunt me." The accusation is serious, and one often leveled at lyric poets, known for their solipsism and their claims of superior insight; this poet is seen to kneel "always wrong to the light," in the pungent vernacular expression, and "never seeing / deeper down"--a grave failing for one whose duty is, after all, vision. And what does the Narcissus-poet see? Only himself, "in the summer heaven godlike," reflected in the water of the well, his head wreathed by heaven and earth, cloud-puffs and fern--in a parody of the laurel wreath traditionally consecrating a classical poet's glory.
Then the poem turns serious as it starts to tell a particular story, insisting on the particularity by italicizing once. The four-line sentence is much interrupted by pauses, caesuras, which mark the hesitation in both perception and thought as the seer gropes his way toward representing his vision. The verbs of vision and cognition cooperate--"I discerned, as I thought"--appropriately so for this passionate reader of the psychologist-philosopher William James. Syntax, too, acts out the faltering quest: the prepositions agitate the sentence and guide the eye beyond the picture, through the picture. But not to any clear resolution. The indefinite pronoun "something," already introduced in the title, now comes into play, repeated three times to frustrate the poet's and the reader's desire for certitude: "a something white, uncertain, / Something more of the depths--and then I lost it." The experience will tease us, as it teased the poet-seer, but will not grant anything more than this indefinite "something," the last word of the poem. The initial taunt from others turns into the rebuke from the disturbed water as a drop falls and blurs and blots the vision. The poem concludes in a flurry of questions: "What was that whiteness? / Truth? A pebble of quartz?" And with the reiterated title. As in "Nothing Gold Can Stay," this title reappears in the last line, freighted with meaning gathered in the course of the poem.
What about those questions? The choice between "Truth" and "a pebble of quartz" is enormous, a choice between reality interpreted in abstract, philosophical terms (Truth), or in concrete, physical terms (a pebble of quartz). By the end of the poem, the title is revealed as a false promise. "For Once, Then, Something," seemed to grant, at least once, something solid, a revelation. But all the poem provides by the end is a state of undecidability, a vision blurred and blotted, life experienced as frustrated quest.
"Spring Pools," the first poem in West-Running Brook published five years later, also plays with the Narcissus theme, and in the pun on "reflect" examines the ways in which poetry both visually represents, and muses upon, what it sees.
SPRING POOLS These pools that, though in forests, still reflect The total sky almost without defect, And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver, Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone, And yet not out by any brook or river, But up by roots to bring dark foliage on. The trees that have it in their pent-up buds To darken nature and be summer woods-- Let them think twice before they use their powers To blot out and drink up and sweep away These flowery waters and these watery flowers From snow that melted only yesterday.
The poem is ingeniously designed. The more you look at it, the more you see the multiple ways in which it reflects upon itself, and inverts its own patterns as a mirror reverses the image it gives back. For example, the two symmetrical six-line stanzas reflect one another: each is one sentence, each is rhymed AABCBC, and each starts with the same syntactic construction, a noun and relative clause: "These pools that," "The trees that." Simile itself, as a figure of speech, is a kind of reflection: A is like B. These pools are like the flowers, and like the flowers will soon be gone. But the most remarkable feature of internal reflection here occurs in the figure of chiasm, that rhetorical pattern of ABBA elements, in this case in the penultimate line, "These flowery waters and these watery flowers." As John Hollander observes in his reflective book Melodious Guile, "Spring Pools" covertly revises Milton's Eve in Paradise Lost, entranced by the reflection of her own beauty in the pool in Eden before she meets Adam. (12) "Spring Pools" also revises and perhaps redeems Ovid's Narcissus, because in Frost's poem no figure is so in love with herself or himself as to risk drowning in self-regard. But another Renaissance Narcissus is even more present in Frost's poem, Hollander notes: the phrase "watery flowers" comes right out of Spenser's Faerie Queene (FQ 3.2.45). In that epic, the fair Britomart is wasting away from love for an idealized, imaginary knight--not like Narcissus, she claims,
... for that same wretched boy Was of himself the idle Paramoure; Both love and lover without hope of joy, For which he faded to a watry flower.
Frost lightly invokes the Narcissus romance-with-self to dismiss it. His poem knows that the pools, the flowers they resemble, and their reflections will "soon be gone." Like "Nothing Gold Can Stay," this poem meditates on transience, and warns even the mighty trees that drink up the pools that they too shall pass; the trees are invited to reflect upon their condition: "Let them think twice " The trees thrive in a continuum from "snow that melted only yesterday" through the transient pools and flowers to their own dark but also temporary powers. In "Nothing Gold Can Stay," the rhyming couplets (gold/hold; day/ stay) tried to arrest loss and the passage of time. In "Spring Pools," it's the self-enclosing figure of chiasm (flowery waters, watery flowers) that tries to hold back the inevitable flow. As all poetry does, in one way or another, perpetually rewriting Shakespeare's plea "that in black ink my love may still shine bright."
We come now to the keystone of my arch, the poem from whose title, "Design," I have taken my argument. As we learn from Anne Ferry, Frost's poem has a peculiar history. He composed an early version in 1912, entitled "In White." Ten years later he revised it and retitled it "Design," but he held back from publishing it in one of his own collections until A Further Range in 1936, twenty-four years after he began it--though he did allow Louis Untermeyer to include it in an anthology in 1922. To Untermeyer, he wrote that the poem was "a calculated resurrection from the past." (13) Both Ferry and Poirier speculate that he guarded it so long because he feared distressing his readers with its sinister theological implications, its suggestion that there is no design in nature, or if there is one, that it's malevolent. As Poirier shows, Frost studied William James's Pragmatism with intense interest, and his poem seems indebted to James's skeptical discussion of arguments for intelligent design in nature. The poem earned no critical attention until Randall Jarrell pointed to it in his essay on Frost in The Kenyon Review in 1952, calling it "ingeniously and conclusively merciless," and Lionel Trilling, the main speaker at Frost's eighty-fifth birthday celebration in 1959, invoked the poem as evidence that Frost was "a terrifying poet." Let's try to see what the fuss is about.
IN WHITE A dented spider like a snow-drop white On a white Heal-all, holding up a moth Like a white piece of lifeless satin cloth-- Saw ever curious eye so strange a sight? Portent in little, assorted death and blight Like the ingredients in a witches' broth? The beady spider, the flower like a froth, And the moth carried like a paper kite. What had that flower to do with being white, The blue Brunella every child's delight? What brought the kindred spider to that height? (Make we no thesis of the miller's plight.) What but design of darkness and of night? Design, design! Do I use the word aright?
Like its later incarnation, "In White" is a sonnet, and it has a similar obsessive rhyme scheme, almost completely dominated by rhymes with "white." The two poems share a basic plot: the speaker finds a sinister coincidence in the placement of a white spider and its victim, a white moth, on an albino version of a flower that is usually blue. But the phrasing in "In White" tends to the precious, the impersonal, and the convoluted, as in line 4: "Saw ever curious eye so strange a sight?" Line 10 isn't precious so much as banal: "every child's delight." Line 12 is frankly mystifying, as well as tormented in syntax: "(Make we no thesis of the miller's plight.)" The last line spins its wheels around the word "design" without getting anywhere, and draws attention to the speaker of the poem in the first person pronoun in a way that distracts from the central drama: "Design, design! Do I use the word aright?" One can see why Frost was unsatisfied with "In White" and never published it. We can also see, in studying "Design," a feat of revision as an achievement of poetic design as well as a harrowing meditation on the idea of design in creation, and on the human appetite for order.
DESIGN 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.
In the revision, the first person singular actor migrates from the last line to the first, and he takes forthright possession of the poem: "I found a dimpled spider, fat and white." The spider is now more clearly seen: not like a "snow-drop white," but frankly white, and fat, because it has ingested the torso of the moth, leaving only the wings visible. Line 4 now follows a natural word order--"Assorted characters of death and blight"--playing on the double sense of "characters" as actors in a story, and as scripted letters requiring decipherment, symbolic letters in the book of nature that the poet finds hard to read. The rhyme word, "blight," has replaced the obvious noun "sight"; such a visual poem had no need to name the optical sense. The octave, as a whole, "mixes" its tones, between a lugubrious humor ("to begin the morning right," "a witches' broth") and a cool, sober accounting: "I found a dimpled spider...."
In the sestet, the obnoxious and awkward lines have disappeared, and the poem now moves flawlessly to its grim conclusion, preserving the form of three questions but steering them without obstruction. But the momentous invention in "Design" occurs in the change of the rhyme and the allied placement of a new and complex image that focuses and sums up the entire poem. Instead of six lines rhyming with "white," Frost has introduced the "all" pattern: "heal-all," "appall," and "small." Heal-all, the common name of the flower Prunella vulgaris (or Brunella), communicates much more than the Latin name. Not only is it more in line with Frost's esthetics of common speech, but the benevolent promise of healing contrasts ironically with the scene which has nothing to do with healing, and everything to do with ruthless predation.
And now we come to the last two lines, and watch Frost discover his true subject in the very grain of the language. "What but design of darkness to appall?--/ If design govern in a thing so small." This third question tentatively answers the first two: why was the flower white and what brought the white spider and the white moth to it? If this is intelligent design, the poem suggests, it's infernal, a design of darkness. The word "appall," replacing the redundant "night," contains within itself the chiaroscuro paradox. The whiteness glimpsed through the well water in "For Once, Then, Something" was mysterious, but not threatening. The white so reiterated through rhyme in "Design" approaches a condition of evil, or--like Moby-Dick--what humans might imagine as evil in nature. The white in the poem partakes in both dark and light, and the word "appall" contains both. From the Old French "apalir," "appall" means to make pale, to blanch, to whiten, and by extension, to blanch with terror. But the word is also kin to the Old English "pell," a costly robe or mantle, purple, white, or black, spread over a coffin--hence, to cast a pall. It predates, in English usage, the Latin "pallium," cloak or mantle. Frost's "design of darkness to appall" brings dark and light together, as it also joins the concretely visual and the metaphysical implications of the word and the scene.
But this proposition doesn't end the poem. After the question mark and the dash, Frost tosses off one of those terse, deflating qualifications that mark his skeptical intelligence and his refusal of melodrama, and often end his poems. This poem named "Design" has presented a design in its plot and in its rhyme structure, and has also presented a hypothesis about the authorship of the design--some dark will, some cosmic malice. The last line withdraws that perhaps infantile suggestion, leaving us with the bleaker notion that the universe makes no moral sense, malicious or beneficent. "If design govern in a thing so small." The tone is crucial in bringing off the effect: unpretentious, semi-casual, sardonic, not a wisecrack, but a dismissal.
And what is the "thing so small"? Well, it's the little Darwinian scene of spider and moth. But it's also the poem itself. And here, one may object, design does govern. A deity may or may not impose or compose order in the world, but the poet has designed a little nightmare, and in so doing has invited us to think about human ordering, and about our hunger to perceive orders and meanings. Like "For Once, Then, Something," "Design" refuses to answer, but leaves us in a state of apprehension and inquiry, more fully attuned to the perplexities of being alive.
"The Oven Bird," "Nothing Gold Can Stay," "Design," "Spring Pools," and "For Once, Then Something," from the book THE POETRY OF ROBERT FROST edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright [c] 1923, 1928, 1969 by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright [c] 1944, 1951, 1956 by Robert Frost. Reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
"In White" appears by the permission of the estate of Robert Frost.
(1.) Robert Frost, Selected Letters, ed. Lawrance Thompson (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964), 84. The letter was written July 17,1913, to Thomas Mosher.
(2.) Robert Frost, Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays, ed. Richard Poirier and Mark Richardson (New York: Library of America, 1995), 826.
(3.) Ibid. 786.
(5.) Ibid. 675.
(6.) Richard Poirier, Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 74-5.
(7.) Robert Frost, Collected Poems, 888.
(8.) Matthew Spencer, Elected Friends: Robert Frost and Edward Thomas to One Another (New York: Handsel Books, 2003), 196, 189.
(9.) Ibid. 16.
(10.) Ibid. 20.
(11.) Joel E. Cohen has beautifully analyzed the patterning in this poem in his essay "Mixing apples and oranges: what poetry and applied mathematics have in common." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 155(2):189-202 (June 2011). Free download from http://www.amphilsoc.org/sites/default/files/ proceedings/6Cohen1550206.pdf. A condensed version was published in 2010 as: A mindful beauty. In: The Best Spiritual Writing 2011, ed. Philip Zaleski, pp. 30-42. Penguin Books, New York. 244 p. ISBN 978-0-14-311867-1.
(12.) John Hollander, Melodious Guile (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 128.
(13.) Anne Ferry, By Design: Intention in Poetry (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), 173.
ROSANNA WARREN teaches in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Her most recent book of poems is Ghost in a Red Hat (Norton, 2011).