In high school we studied a poem by Robert Frost called "Design." It deposited enduring fragments that echo in our mind from time to time, and recently we spent a quiet afternoon in the Poetry Corner of the Lounge to revisit the poem.  

Like many readers of a certain age who were exposed to poetry before the Internet came along, we often regarded the study of it as the bane of English class: poetry was reading without the engaging elements of plot or characters, and awkward class discussions in which no one had a very good idea what they were talking about or what might be a suitable thing to say. But happily, something good rubbed off from it, and we left the institution with treasured shards of poetry committed to memory, and enough tools in hand to find a way into other poems on our own. The efforts of high school English teachers to impart an appreciation of poetry to indifferent students should not be underestimated: these teachers' quiet contribution to human culture and happiness is something that cannot be precisely measured, but we are all far better for it.

Fast-forward 40 years, and you might think that imparting an appreciation of poetry to young and restless minds is an even more formidable undertaking. Poetry hasn't changed — on one level, it's still just black words on a white page — but now poetry has competition for young people's attention that is far more deafening than it was then: music videos, iPods, text-messaging, and every audio-visual distraction that our wired and wireless age provides can make the study of a poem seem even more of a dull chore than it once did.

Happily, however, you only have to poke around the Internet to realize that old-fashioned poetry is alive and well, and has many friends. Google Design + "Robert Frost" and you find that this poem has not simply been gathering dust in anthologies since its early 20th-century publication. Not only that: information that you can grab online can instantly illuminate corners of the poem that might have remained opaque for people who studied it a generation ago.

The poem begins:

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth

There's a lot to be said for conjuring these images out of your imagination, but if you don't actually know what a heal-all is (how many high school students do?), there's already a barrier erected. With a few clicks and keystrokes, however, you can easily find a picture of a heal-all online. You can even find a picture of what you might never find in nature yourself: the rare white heal-all (most of them are purple or blue).


Photo courtesy of Dan Mullen

If the dimpled spider doesn't quite jump into your mind's eye, they're not so hard to find either. Some white spiders are dimpled naturally, like this one.


Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

When Frost wrote his poem (it was published in 1936), and even when we first studied it, the tempest that currently rages in education about intelligent design was not really on anyone's radar. Today, Frost's poems, including this one, serve as poster children and whipping boys on both sides of the ID debate, and this fact supports one aspect of the life that "Design" has online today. But most folks who have bothered to call attention to the poem online do so for a less agenda-driven reason: it's just a great poem. It doesn't yield up all of its secrets on the first reading, and perhaps not even on the 51st reading. It does just what great art is supposed to do: it shines a light on a subject that we might not otherwise investigate or be able to comprehend; it inspires people to reflect and create. As evidence of that, you can find all sorts of "Design" inspired web pages: pages with photos, criticism, polemics, and even a couple of YouTube versions of the poem, in which videographers (young ones, it looks like) recite the poem against a background of images they have assembled.

What we found in the poem — when looking at it after a gap of years in which adolescence finished, adulthood descended, and the "golden years" begin to loom — is that nothing about the poem has aged a day. The poem uses as its point of departure an encounter with nature: an experience that is as old as the human race, and that we hope may always be available to us.  It's a sonnet (Italian style) and mainly follows the strict requirements for one, echoing perhaps the ways in which design may govern or not govern a thing. But it also deviates from everything you expect of a sonnet in several ways: in the rhyme scheme, in the meter of particular lines, and in the presentation and treatment of its subject.

What we puzzle about after returning to the poem after so many years is this: the last two lines of the poem, a couplet, are as follows:

What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.

How do you parse that first line: is "design of darkness" a noun phrase and subject for which the infinitive "to appall" is the verb? Is the "of" a genitive one, such that "darkness' design" would have about the same meaning? Is it possible that the line is a construction of the "there was a variety of foods to eat" type, in which a transitive verb at the end (appall) finds its nominal object in the preceding noun (darkness)? You can find something to support any of those readings, or you can take the out offered in the last line, whose subjunctive offers a throwaway option for the idea of design.

Here's the whole poem, with a few words linked to illuminating wordmaps in the VT:

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.


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Monday August 3rd 2009, 7:22 AM
Comment by: Maria D.
Orin, what a great essay. I am going to teach Networking Science at a homeschool coop this Fall, and I just saved this piece for using it as an example. With the social internet, there are tools for quickly discovering and evaluating meaning and significance of any piece within current network. Moreover, you can search within particular domains interesting to students - or rather, invite each student or group to search within their networks.

Here, for example, is someone using Frost's "The road not taken" to make a point about World of Warcraft strategies: http://www.warcraft-news.com/your-perfect-swing/

Here is a Flickr-based photography contest based on "Stopping by woods on a snowy evening": http://www.flickr.com/groups/creamcitymilwaukee/discuss/72157610886593628/

Depending on the network, word maps will be different, too. That's one of the main points of poetry, I think.
Monday August 3rd 2009, 8:37 AM
Comment by: sandra D. (largo, FL)
I found this poem most enjoyable. I garden a lot and am now looking for the dimpled spider enjoying his morning meal. Reading the entire poem renewed many memories of my teacher sharing poetry daily with our class. Needless to say we did not enjoy it as much as we do today.
Thank you for sharing this.
Monday August 3rd 2009, 9:00 AM
Comment by: Kcecelia (San Francisco, CA)
Beautifully written. Sweet and delicate piece about the power and meaning of poetry, now enhanced by the internet, told in a gentle and intellingent way. Thank you.
Monday August 3rd 2009, 11:24 AM
Comment by: Helene J. (Wilmette, IL)
Thank you for bringing to out attention, this nice poem...I had never read it. Having studied in France, I never had the privilege of reading it in school... Being a gardener, I will also look for this spider and also I have discovered the name of this plant "heal all"..., I have emailed the article to my 16 year old grand daughter who is vacationnning in her parents's summer home in St Remy de Provence. I hope it will be a nice interlude in her daily routine...
Monday August 3rd 2009, 8:53 PM
Comment by: Ikars S.
I wonder why no one mentions Frost seeing there is a dark design to existence since the closure is that the last two lines hark back to the earlier mention of death and blight. Does that not obviate the need to parse those lines?
Tuesday August 4th 2009, 2:40 AM
Comment by: Kristin T.
What a delightful poem and the piece written by Mr. Hargraves is an excellent tribute to Frost.
Tuesday August 4th 2009, 10:14 AM
Comment by: Elizabeth G. (Stamford, CT)
Thank you. What an opportunity to rethink our attitude toward insects. I will share this poem with my husband who likes to swat at every creature that crawls or flies into our home. I love spiders, but never imagined they had dimples... I look forward to photographing the next one I come across.
Tuesday August 4th 2009, 6:58 PM
Comment by: Jill S.
I find it interesting that so many readers are referring to the poem as "sweet, delightful, nice" etc. in their comments. I found it kind of dark and scary- all about death and killing and such- the ironic conjunction of a "heal-all" plant as the scene of death, the white predator (white usually depicting innocence,sinlessness)and its victim, all referred to as a "witch's brew" and the death scene as part of an "appalling" dark design...its a jungle out there. Well, that's the beauty of poetry, isn't it? We all bring to it what we are, what we know, what we want and need, and our interpretations and understandings of it are uniquely our own.

That is why, I think, as the author of the essay pointed out, high school students have difficulty discussing poetry- they are so used to there being ONE "correct" answer or interpretation to literature-they get frustrated. We need to teach them to better appreciate the truth and beauty contained in multiple viewpoints and ambiguity.
Wednesday August 5th 2009, 3:43 PM
Comment by: Laurie P. (Los Angeles, CA)
Thanks for dragging me out of my daily daily to face a poem so remarkable. The poem is not sweet and delightful but thoughtful, real, and complicated. And beautiful. I'm with Jill S. Let's hear it for ambiguity.
Monday August 10th 2009, 4:16 PM
Comment by: Andrew C. (Baldwin,, NY)
Do we human see, hear,touch, taste and smell what we want to or worse what we've been programmed or program ourselves for. Frost is defending intelligent design, not very enigmatically either.

You have to be afraid of offending the rootless intelligentsia (it is surprising so many here are gardeners and so should know the stubbornness and uniqueness of each seed of reality. Yet like snowflakes or crystals each trumpets a complexity of form beyond the capacity of the mere human mind to fully comprehend. Only the Designer who alone existed at the foundation of time and space, whose work it is, not only at its creation but sustaining it each moment in time can comprehend it. It is in its comprehension that it was created and sustained.

While it is folded in mystery that God, in letting us name everything, made us co-creators with Him. It is the Logos that is not only first cause but perpetual and ever-continuing cause. Science is sustained by faith that there is a reality apart from us that we can witness to, not the other way round.

Frost's darkness is not intended to scare. It is related to Isaiah's reminder that we were fearfully (here related to awe not trepidation) and wonderfully made in the bowels of the earth (our mother's womb) when no one but God knew (conceived, gave form to) us. It is the ultimate condemnation as unscientific of abortion, euthanasia and anti-theistic evolution. Evolution was known and accepted long before Darwin.
Tuesday August 11th 2009, 12:55 PM
Comment by: Raju Kalampuram
A very poetic and informative write up citing an amazing poem!
Tuesday August 17th 2010, 3:03 PM
Comment by: Jacob B. (Lumberton, NC)
Splendid! Frost's poetry with its intuitive reflections touches the inner spirit of manking in a simplistic yet multutudinous way.
Tuesday August 17th 2010, 3:20 PM
Comment by: Jacob B. (Lumberton, NC)
I believe the word is "multitudinous."

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