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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Number 7: Robert Frost "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.

-- Robert Frost

Hap Notes: Robert Frost (1874-1963) was a cantankerous, sad-hearted, thorny, brilliant old jester and if you've been reading him as a pleasant pastoral poet of the Northeast go no farther. I don't want to spoil your pleasure. He's possibly my favorite American poet and that's saying something.

Everything he stands for in the popular culture is wrong. He was not a native New England farmer-- he was born and raised in San Francisco, and later, in Lawrence, Massachusetts. He wasn't anywhere near a farm until he was in his late 20's. He did write many of his poems as he worked on a farm his grandpa gave him. His neighbors said that he was a terrible farmer, by the way. He was not a neat and organized man of the soil. Even in his old age, when visitors would come to his house, they would see chickens hanging around in the living room and the kitchen. So scratch that idyllic farmer guy out of your head completely.

He was a highly intelligent, wryly funny, observer of nature, however. That much is true. And he really did mend stone walls. He saw things in New England that vibrated with his soul. I'll give you that. Frost's poems are often a bit like mystic rhyming riddles and they're often about the forces of life and death.

This particular poem is a Petrarchan Sonnet and the form is important because generally they deal with love that is frustratingly unattainable. Usually the first eight lines (the octave) describe a situation and the last six (the sestet) go about trying to solve it.

So this sonnet is pretty darn scary.

First, look at the soft and lovely words he uses to describe this scene- dimpled (how cute!), innocent, heal-all, satin, froth, snow-drop and the childlike connotations of the word "kite." When he pairs them up with hard words liked "rigid" and "witches" and "dead wings" the dark words even get softened a bit- or are they darkened? He's just describing what seems like a strange coincidence. The heal-all is an anomaly (the blue flower in the picture above is a heal-all), they are normally blue. It's a plant that has been used for years to cure a variety of ailments, hence its name. He sells us on the idea that this is a very odd coincidence.

Now he goes in for the kill.

How did this happen? Is there some force at work which created this little scene? Is there some "intelligent design" behind this? Who created all this to let it happen? If it is just happenstance, what does that say about the universe? If it's something bigger, then why? If this is intelligent design- this little scene of white death- what does that say about God? Frost doesn't need to scare us with witches (who make light "broth") and Satan. He's scaring us with the question, "What kind of twisted God or universe does this?" What is this "dark design?"

And then, in the last line, he winks at us, the old goat! He backs off a little and lets us breathe. Maybe there's no design here at all. He's just askin'. But it's too late because the terrifying truth is that we don't actually know if there's a designer here or not. Both the presence and the absence of a designer in this anomalous scene are equally scary. And as for unattainable love? How does that relate to the poem?

How's that for a little "harmless'' poem about nature, eh?

Lest you think I'm making all this up I'll refer you to the critic Lionel Trilling. At Frost's 85th birthday party (in 1959- so this isn't late breaking news or anything) he stood up and said, "I have to say that my not the Frost who reassures us by his affirmations of old virtues, simplicities, pieties and ways of feeling: anything but..I think of Robert Frost as a terrifying poet... read the poem "Design" and see if you sleep the better for it."

Frost was delighted by this. He loved Trilling's brass and said to him "You weren't there to sing 'Happy Birthday, dear Robert' and I don't mind being made controversial. No sweeter music can come down to my ears than the clash of arms over my dead body when I am down."

He wasn't crestfallen at being misunderstood and he might even have been relieved that somebody saw through the mask. Somebody got the joke, the work, the searching, lonely, scorched soul underneath the poetry.

Frost's life, by the way, was filled with heartache and tragedy. His dad died when he was 8, he had to commit his sister to a mental institution (his mother was already dead by then), he was hereditarily prone to depression and his wife suffered from it, too. They had one child die of cholera, one child who only lived three days, one child was committed to a mental institution and another child committed suicide. His wife died in 1938 so he spent almost 30 years with no partner. Only two of his six children out-lived him and one of them was in a mental health facility. He came by his wry views pretty naturally, one assumes.

You can find more Frost here, although I'm not nearly done with him for this blog, just hang onto your hat- this isn't his most terrifying poem by a long shot: /

Here's a nice Frost quote: "It is absurd to think that the only way to tell if a poem is lasting is to wait and see if it lasts. The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken an immortal wound—that he will never get over it."

And here's another: "Poetry begins in trivial metaphors, pretty metaphors, "grace" metaphors, and goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have. Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another. People say, "Why don’t you say what you mean?" We never do that, do we, being all of us too much poets. We like to talk in parables and in hints and in indirections — whether from diffidence or some other instinct."

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