by Robert Frost
In A Nutshell
Robert Frost is one sneaky fella. At first glance, "Design" seems like a simple little poem. It even has a nice singsong-y meter and rhyme. It sounds like Mother Goose, in fact—until it gets really, really dark, that is.
The… design of "Design" shouldn't be a surprise, though. Frost was an old school poet. While all these newfangled modern poets would spring up in the twentieth century and write in their hip, new forms, Frost was determined to stick it out with classical rhyme schemes and meters. And, on the surface at least, he seems to write about old school subjects—nothing shocking or edgy, just little pictures of life in New England.
But, like we said, Frost is a sneaky chap. First published in 1936, "Design" isn't really so simple as it looks. Frost springs a vicious trap on the reader, setting them up to read a cute little poem about a spider sitting on a flower, then plunging us into the very heart of the meaning of life.
What about life specifically, you ask? Well, everything about the poem rides on the idea of "coincidence." Are coincidences random? Do some weird things "just happen"? Or is there a purpose—an intelligence—at the heart of everything? In the poem, Frost reflects on a bizarre scene—a white spider sits on a white flower about to eat a white moth. This could be a simple little reflection, but Frost is too sneaky for that. He takes his "simple" little poem and turns it into a terrifying question: if this little meeting wasn't just an accident, if it was arranged by some higher power, what kind of deranged higher power is ruling over us? Cue the scary music…
Why Should I Care?
Fine—we admit it. With some poems, it takes a little stretching for us to come up with a great reason why it should matter to you. Luckily for you guys, Shmoopers, this is not one of those poems.
Why should you care about Robert Frost's "Design"? It's just a poem about a little flower, after all. Well, do we have a secret for you. In truth, it's not about a flower at all. It's about trying to figure out the basic nature of… wait for it… the whole universe. It's about whether or not we live in a world that has any meaning and purpose, whether or not anyone out there is in control, and whether or not that's a good thing. Yes—our man Frost sets these stakes high.
Even so, we're guessing that these questions have crossed your mind before now. Of course, you probably didn't come here for a theology lesson, but Frost is going to give you one anyway. In "Design," Frost is wrestling with two foundational arguments. The first is the "argument from design," which we see in the title. Philosophers and theologians have claimed that the undeniable intricacy of the universe and its vast complexity showed us that surely God (or some kind of Intelligence) must have created everything.
Sounds comforting, right? But then again, how did suffering make its way into the design if there is indeed a higher power steering this ship? The second issue that this poem wrestles with is called theodicy, which is the attempt to explain how evil things happen if a good and loving god created the world.
Frost isn't interested in giving us easy answers to these questions. The whole poem is based on the irony that what sounds comforting and reassuring at first might actually be completely terrifying. It's like those well-meaning idiots who decide that, right after some terrible tragedy, it's the perfect time to remind us that "everything happens for a reason." Is it supposed to make us feel better about the world that this awful thing was supposed to happen? That someone or something out there wanted it to happen and orchestrated every event to make sure it would? Yeah, no thanks, pal. No matter what we believe about the universe, sometimes, we just don't want to think that.
So if the meaning of life and the nature of existence isn't really a big deal to you, then you can probably go ahead and skip "Design." But if you think a little something called the universe matters at all, then you've got plenty of reasons to care about this poem.