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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…
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.
University of Illinois
As part of their series, the University of Illinois English Department has a collection of criticism on the poem, including an essay by poet Randall Jarrell.
The American Academy of Poets hosts a concise introduction to Robert Frost, many of his important poems, and a bibliography of his work.
The folks of Poetry magazine have put together a biography site for Frost. You might want to check out the "Further Reading" section.
Want to know more about a heal-all? Check out this website, which includes tons of close-up pictures of the flowers.
Frost Reading "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"
Enjoy a video of Frost reciting one of his most famous poems, with an introduction from Garrison Keillor.
This is a pretty creepy computer animation interpretation of the poem done by a student at Ithaca College.
Here's a reading of the poem produced by LibriVox.
This one's by someone named Cammy Thomas.
Frost's Inaugural Poem for JFK
Frost famously wrote a poem for JFK's inauguration, but was unable to read it, so he ended up reciting "The Gift Outright." Read about it and hear the poem here.
"The Figure a Poem Makes"
Written by Frost, this is one of the most famous and interesting essays on poetry in American history. Check it out.
The Library of America Edition contains the most accurate text, excellent footnotes, and critical essays about Frost.
Robert Frost: A Life
Jay Parini's biography is the work of over two decades of research, including personal interviews with those closest to Frost.