Study Guide

Design Analysis

  • Sound Check

    Frost's form matches the content of his poem. He is writing about the intricate designs of a divine creator and so he writes with a very precise sense of control over his language. That comes through in the sound of the poem, too.

    We talk about form and meter in the appropriately-named "Form and Meter" section. As for the sounds you're hearing in his poem, there are a couple of interesting moments with alliteration. First, we've got line 7, which gives us "a snow-drop spider" and "a flower like a froth." By alliterating those S and F words (as well as using lots of consonance with those P and D sounds), these two content images become lovely and light. This makes the contrast of the awful scene just that much clearer to us. Secondly, we are given the alliterative "design of darkness" in the next to last line. Such a label gives this possible divine force more power and personality.

    More than that, the kind of sound play that we hear in this poem is just another reminder of the poem's Designer. All these sounds don't happen just by accident. We're experiencing a well-wrought work, and the sounds of the poem underscore that effect.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The poem itself is so small, both literally and in terms of its content. It's about an itsy-bitsy spider, a flower, and a moth. Thanks to the title, though, we know immediately that we are talking about some serious philosophy. The poem's title is a direct nod to a classical argument for the existence of God. It goes all the way back to Plato, but Frost is probably referencing a guy named William Paley. You can check out his argument in detail here, but the long and short of it goes like this: in nature, the remarkable complexity and careful, purposeful design we see can only be the work of an intelligent creator.

    As we see throughout Frost's poem, though, we learn that this proof isn't all that helpful because it leaves us with a God who must have designed and controlled everything, even really awful, appalling things—like moth murder. It's also worth noting here that the poem itself is a remarkably designed sonnet. (Check out "Form and Meter" for all the details.) No doubt Frost tightened down his poem to such a precise sonnet to honor his own title. In that way, he's the great Designer behind this poem—props to him.

  • Setting

    The setting of the poem, like the theme itself, is very small. The speaker is looking back on a tiny memory, one that he would have forgotten long ago if it hadn't been so bizarre. All the action of the poem happens on top of a tiny flower. The poem makes us—as big human beings—focus on something tiny in order to bring the question back around to us: does some big god look at us and see only tiny little specks?

    Of course, the real setting of the poem is wherever the poet is now—days, months or even years after he saw this event take place. We don't know what prompted this memory and these thoughts. It might be an interesting exercise to guess what could have happened to him to begin wondering about this forgotten scene.

    At the end of the day, though, we're left with a natural scene that is a bizarre example of design. What sort of madman would throw this kind of setting together? It gets the speaker wondering, and unfortunately this setting provides no comforting answers. Either there is some lunatic up there stitching life together, or else… nobody's up there at all.

  • Speaker

    The speaker could be Frost himself, but that's always a dangerous assumption, Shmoopers. Just because you see "I" doesn't mean that we're looking at a diary entry. Whoever the speaker is, we know that he or she wants us to know that these musings are grounded in the speaker's reality. Whoever this is came upon this situation with the spider, moth and flower. It isn't some thought experiment. Even though the poem wanders off into all sorts of natural and philosophical territories, the first word of the poem draws our attention to the speaker's personal experience: "I."

    Knowing that this poem is told from a personal perspective allows us to be more okay with all the ambiguity we get later on. If this poem was spoken from a more omniscient or third-person point of view, we might be itching for more resolution. (Come on, speaker, less questions, more answers.) Instead, we follow it from a personal recollection of a specific situation and then through an increasingly more intense series of questions. That's okay, though. We're not beaten over the head by this speaker. We feel comfortable with these tough ideas because we know that the speaker is just as lost as we are—he's trying to figure it all out, too.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    The poem really is simple enough, especially the first stanza. It is narrative in form, so we can follow along pretty easily. It gets some credit on the Tough-O-Meter scale for the Shakespeare allusion, but you can appreciate the poem fine without that. The only tough part about the poem is the idea presented in those last two lines. The syntax gets a little tricky and the ideas get tougher to breathe in as we move up into that philosophical air. Overall, though, you're still pretty safe with Frost. Happy trails, gang.

  • Calling Card


    This looks like a weird category, but bear with us. Everything about this poem is sneaky. The title seems simple but blows up into a debate over the nature of the universe. The poem starts with a simple, cute line about a spider and becomes a murder scene. All the images in the poem are white and yet it all adds up to darkness. Frost is messing with us at every turn! That's a very Frost-ian thing to do. His poems often look like old-fashioned, simple poems, especially when compared with the "modern" poets of his day, but upon closer inspection we see that the old man always seems to have a trick up his sleeve. (A great example of this is his famously misread work, "The Road Not Taken". Look closer: is one of those roads really tougher to walk than the other?)


    By this we don't mean just any nature—we mean local, particular nature. Frost wrote the most emblematic descriptions in American literature of New England. His poems are filled with a sharp, particular knowledge of local plants and wildlife. His poems also revolve around a speaker's engagement with a natural setting. (Check out "Birches" for another example.) In this poem, the poet gives very specific descriptions of the spider, flower and moth, and his encounter with this natural scene gives rise to his troubling questions.

  • Form and Meter

    Mostly Petrarchan Sonnet

    "Design" is a very impressive sonnet. A sonnet is a poem composed of fourteen lines that usually develops some sort of argument and has a shift or turn in it (the technical term for this turn is the volta). There are three different types of sonnets: Spenserian, Petrarchan, and Shakespearean. Of these, Petrarchan and Shakespearean are the better-known, and "Design" actually combines elements both.

    We can say that it's mostly Petrarchan, because its first eight lines follow an ABBAABBA rhyme scheme and they form a very complete first unit, which we call an octave. But then things get weird. The last six lines have a unique rhyme scheme: ACAACC. By rhyming the last two lines, he gives us a classic Shakespearean couplet, also known as a heroic couplet. Shakespeare was famous for wrapping up his sonnets with these last two rhyming lines that sounded a lot like punch lines. We don't get a punch line in this poem, but the last two lines do answer the questions brought up earlier in the poem. So it certainly flirts with being a Shakespearean sonnet at the end.

    The main thing to see and be amazed by here is how few rhyme-sounds there are. English is a tough language for rhyming poetry. We aren't like those Europeans with their easy-rhyming romance languages. So we usually don't write poems that restrict our rhymes. But Frost says bring it on. The whole poem only uses three different sound endings and seven lines (half of the whole poem) ends with an "ight" sound. For any of you who have tried to write in rhyme, you know that this kind of restriction is officially… crazy. Frost is really showing off in order to make a point—the intricate design we see points us toward a Designer (in this case, ol' Frosty-pants himself).

    The meter of the poem is just what we would expect from a sonnet: iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter might sound weird at first, but if you read enough English poetry, you'll learn to get used to it. (We got so used to it that we named our dog Iambic Pentameter.) All this means is that each line in the poem is composed of five iambs. Each iamb is a unit composed of one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. It ends up sounding like: daDUM, daDUM, daDUM, daDUM, daDUM. Look at line 1 for example:

    I found a dimpled spider, fat and white.

    Most of the time, poets vary their meter pretty regularly. In fact, it's pretty uncommon to see more than a few lines of "perfect" iambic pentameter in a poem, especially one written in the twentieth century. Modern poets got a lot less picky with their form and meter, mainly choosing to go with free verse. But Frost was a stickler. This sonnet has eight lines of perfect iambic pentameter (lines 1, 4, 5, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13). Three others (lines 6, 7 and 9) simply have an extra unstressed syllable thrown in (which in the poetry world doesn't really count off too much for). That leaves us with only three real variations—impressive stuff.

    The variations all use the same trick. Look at lines 2, 3 and 14. Rather than begin with "daDUM, daDUM," they start with two unstressed and then hit us with the stressed: "da da, DUM DUM." For crazy form and meter bonus points, you might want to know that, technically speaking, this is a pyrrhic followed by a spondee. The effect of the first two, especially at the beginning of the line and toward the beginning of the poem, is to add momentum. We move quickly over those unstressed syllables and then we hammer on the stressed ones. This is a good move for Frost as the first three lines are setting up a narrative. The last line begins with two soft syllables so it creeps up on the reader. We ended line 13 with that dash, which held us in suspense. It's like the poem ended there and then he slowly, quietly begins speaking again.

    If you haven't caught on by now, a good word to describe this poem's form would be "designed." Clearly, Frost is the master of everything that happens in this poem, right down to the syllable. Even if the content may be asking questions about who's running the show of life generally, we're left with no doubts that we're in the presence of a great Designer of the poem itself.

  • Spider

    Somehow, spiders ended up with a bad rap. For our money, it's the legs. You know, insects are creepy enough with six, but you throw those extra two in and it just pushes it over the edge. Spiders are a traditional symbol of cruelty and torment, particularly in contrast to innocence—think "Little Miss Muffet." But there's more to them than just spookiness. Spiders are weavers of intricate webs. In Greek mythology, Arachne challenged the goddess Athena to a weaving contest and was turned into a spider for her arrogance. Not only that, the tangled webs they weave are intricate. They are the "small" things Frost is talking about in the poem. And those intricate webs are… wait for it… designed to entrap and kill others. So, a spider is a perfect symbol for "Design."

    • Line 1: The first image of the spider is childish, but it's also a sickly white and bloated spider. We start with a contrast between light and dark imagery.
    • Line 11: Frost refers to the spider as a "kindred" creature of the other characters in the scene. Even the cruel killer is part of this design, and carries out its own designs in turn.
  • Flower

    This is not just any flower—Frost chose a heal-all, a blue flower that has medicinal properties. In contrast to the ugly spider, who is designed—and has designs—to kill, kill, kill, Frost gives us an image that brings beauty and life into the world. Of course, though, he can't help but give it a little twist. The heal-all isn't blue—it's white. Something has gone wrong with the flower and we are left wondering whether this is good or bad, intentional or unintentional.

    • Line 2: Right away, Frost emphasizes that even though this is a pretty heal-all, it isn't the normal blue.
    • Line 7: The "flower like a froth" is another sneaky image. On the one hand, it means it's light and fluffy like frosting (yum), or it's like a rabid animal foaming at the mouth (eek).
    • Lines 9-10: Frost begins his questions with the flower, wondering what the flower's involvement is in this plot to kill the moth. Why is it white? He even goes out of his way to call it "innocent."
  • Witches' Broth

    We talked about this allusion in the Detailed Summary, but Frost is giving a shout-out to Macbeth. But the big thing to remember is that the cauldron was all about combining various elements to achieve specific (mostly nasty) purposes. It was about scheming and cursing unsuspecting victims. So it's a perfect symbol for the sort of design Frost is worried about. Is all of nature a witches' broth, conspiring to kill us? (Cue the fog machine and spooky music.)

    • Line 6: The reference to the cauldron comes sandwiched between two light-hearted lines, creating even more contrast and confusion of meaning.
  • White

    For a dark poem, Frost sure picked a weird color to focus on. Actually, that's kind of the point. He contrasts the light innocence of white with the potentially evil design behind their color scheme.

    • Lines 1-3: In the first three lines, he repeats the word "white" three times. The spider, the flower and the moth are all white. As readers, we are supposed to wonder at this coincidence.
    • Line 9: The first question Frost asks refers to the color of the flower. Why does the flower (and this whole scene) have to be white? Does it mean something, or is it just coincidence?
    • Steaminess Rating


      There's some decent spider-on-bug violence in here, if you are looking for something to get worked up about. And, yes, it does call into question both the existence of goodness and of God. But that still doesn't make it any sexier.

    • Allusions

      Literature References

      • Macbeth (6): In the poem Frost gives a shout-out to Shakespeare's bloodiest tragedy, Macbeth. It's logical that he would choose to reference the play, as it is about a man who hears his fortune told by a bunch of witches and then must wrestle with himself to decide whether he possesses free will over this prophecy, or whether he is a slave to its design. The witches' broth Frost references here is the bubbling cauldron into which the witches throw disgusting ingredients.

      Philosophy References

      • The Argument from Design (entire poem): The poem's title shouts-out a classical argument for the existence of God. Frost is probably referencing a guy named William Paley, but he's hardly the first one to come up with the idea. It stretches all the way back to the Greeks. You can check out Paley's argument in detail here, but basically he states that the intricate beauty of nature can't just be coincidence—it must be the work of the Creator. As we read in the poem, Frost tells us that while that might be true, it may not be a good thing. We might not want to believe in a god who carefully arranges for an albino spider to kill and eat a moth on a bright, sunny morning. Maybe we'd rather call that just an accident.