All Creatures Great and Small
Design by Robert Frost (1936) conforms to the demanding sonnet strictures. It features an 8-6 internal structure which typically connotes a two-prong argument, the last two verses of the poem, the couplet, serving as a climax. Thematically and emotively too, Frost’s poem is well-suited to the compact sonnet form. In this instance, the theme is one of discovery and the overall tone, of an unparalleled intensity.
In the octet (verses 1 through 8), we’re treated to a lavish depiction of what virtually preempts the poet’s entire field of vision: a flower, a moth, and a spider. Offhand, it’s a simple proposition when taken at face value: a moth, once attracted to a flower, gets caught by a spider — end of story! Any such sequence of events (and there are plenty more examples to choose from) is so commonplace in fact that as a rule we give it no further thought. We simply ascribe it to the workings of a food chain and go about our merry way. “Been there, done that” is the usual response.
Frost’s preoccupation with the subject matter, however, the sheer intensity with which he examines every single aspect of the fatal result, ever single detail as though he was looking at it through a spyglass, are so convincing, so powerful, so infectious in fact that we’re practically forced to revisit the scene anew as though for the first time and look at it afresh, with the poet’s eyes.
It is mainly through imagery, imagery for the express purpose of drawing a contrast, that Frost accomplishes this feat and sparks our interest in the present, if only to make us wait and see what lies ahead, in the septet. From the outset, the three “assorted characters” are painted as “white.” The flower is a white “heal-all.” The moth, although dead by now, is not the usual grey or black or brown but is rendered instead as “a white piece of rigid satin cloth.” Even the abhorrent spider, the perpetrator of the deed, however “dimpled” and “fat” – which suggests it’s not his first encounter with prey –is white, too.
Compare this now to Frost’s use of “colors” at the octet’s end: “A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth, [A]nd dead wings carried like a paper kite.” There are none! Apart from the spider, the sole survivor, the term of contrast is death (and symbolism of death). Indeed, even the flower is listless, suffering from “blight,” its once sweet juices all-extracted, hence it’s “[foaming] like a froth.”
“White” and “death”are thus the poet’s intended opposites, “white” signifying life. Consequently, it’s life and death, the incorrigible fact and the endless cycle of nature, that is the proper object of the poet’s study and contemplation.
In the very same octet, we’re introduced to another potential contrast, between “right” and “wrong.” Although the term “wrong” is never explicitly used, it’s implied nonetheless by verses 4 and 5:
“Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right.” (my italics)
Once again, we see Frost engage here in skillful juxtaposition and manipulation of terms. This time, it is “death” and “blight” that are meant to connote “wrong” and to stand thus in vivid contrast to the word “right” (with which the fifth verse ends).
What manner of conflict does the poet aspire to evoke?
There’s no question that in part at least, the conflict must partake of a moral dimension: the terms “right” and “wrong,” no matter how innocuously employed, are simply too deeply embedded in our everyday (moral) language to ever become completely divorced therefrom. Consequently, couching the subject matter in terms of a moral dilemma is undeniably a part of Frost’s intention.
And indeed, sympathy and mourning are some of the natural human responses to our encounters with victimhood, sickness and death – so much so in fact that ofttimes we’re even driven to pass moral judgments concerning whatever it is that we apprehend as the cause – be it God, Nature, or simply a set of circumstances. “There’s no justice in the universe!” is one common expression of some such sentiment.
But whereas presenting the reader with a moral dilemma apropos of “[our] assorted characters,” inviting her thus (if only in the interim) to pass a judgment, may have been the poet’s first choice among the many stimuli to stir us to thinking, it’s only the beginning! At least two textual references lend support to another interpretation; moreover, both seem to foreshadow as well as inform the reading of the ensuing septet.
First, notice that although the terms and the resulting imagery associated with death are dark, sinister and ominous (e.g., “death and blight,” “witches’ broth,” etc.), they’ve been effectively defanged and made impotent, no longer suggestive of evil, by the very ending of verse 5: “. . . to begin the morning right (my emphasis).”
The concept of right performs a double duty here. In the first instance, it draws us, if only temporarily, into a moral dilemma as one way of relating to the unfolding sequence of events (but as I said, that’s only the beginning). This time, however, especially when considered as part of the phrase “to begin the morning right,” the term is no longer (morally) loaded; it functions now more as a modifier than a concept. And the innocent, morally-neutral reading of the phrase, its intended meaning, simply is: to begin the morning anew – i.e., afresh, as all mornings are or at least should be.
There’s no regret here, no accusation, only a poetic allusion to the irreversible cycle of nature: mornings follow nights just as surely as life is bound to be followed by death!
“A snow-drop spider” (verse 7) – the second textual reference of note – only highlights the poet’s dramatic shift in perspective from moral to natural point of view, a crowning realization with which the octet ends: even the horrible spider is on a par with the flower by having been likened to a “snow-drop,” a flower itself, sharing thus with the heal-all a certain commonality. All three, the spider, the moth and the heal-all are part of the exact same nature!
Thus armed, the reader is ready to tackle the remainder of the poem.
The internal structure of the septet is an ingenious one. Its entire corpus is preempted by a sequence of three questions, each posing an increasing degree of difficulty. Frost ensures, however, that the transition from one question to the next, although demanding every step of the way, is nonetheless within reach. He achieves this by providing the reader with a trail of breadcrumbs along the way: a correct answer to the first question will make the second one easier to deal with, and so on and so forth.
Let’s start with the sequence’s opening:
“What had the flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?”
Not only is this question put in a most direct and concrete manner; more importantly, it’s a rhetorical question as well. And the patently obvious answer is, “Not a thing!” The flower has no choice in the matter. It is what it is! It just so happens that our heal-all is white.
Consider now the second of the triad:
“What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth tither in the night?”
Prima facie, this question is no less concrete or less direct than the first, but that’s where all the similarity ends. The question is about motivation, instinct, internal mechanisms, drives, stimuli, what have you – a taxing subject even for a consummate professional, let alone a layman. Indeed, unlike with what we’ve been confronted before, this time we’re presented with a puzzle, a real puzzle. There aren’t any definitive, ready-made answers.
Now we must consider the two questions in tandem. Notice that the recurring term throughout is “white” (e.g., “white flower,” “white moth”); and although the spider is not identified in this instance by its color, we do know from verses past that it, too, is white (not green, grey or black). Thus, all the assorted characters of the poet’s melodrama are white, but we’ve known this all along. The novelty comes with the modifier innocent, to characterize the heal-all.
It is thus that we’re being presented with our first clue (if we are to discount our answer to the rhetorical question we’ve been asked earlier). To wit, prior to now, “white” was the poet’s choice synonym for life; at this point, the term becomes enriched to symbolize innocence as well. The second clue – and that’s the missing piece of the puzzle – comes by way of reference to the spider as kindred. (As stated earlier, “white” was the ole’ proven reference of choice, but to use it again would have been redundant. “Kindred” was a stroke of genius on the poet’s part.)
At last, we can put all the pieces together and arrive at a compelling interpretation. The flower, the moth and the spider, each is white and each is innocent. Yes, even the spider is innocent for all its “wrongdoings” –despite having victimized both the flower and the moth! Moreover, the spider is a kindred specimen as well –kindred insofar as the moth and the flower are concerned. Which means, of course, that friend or foe, predator or prey, they all share the same nature.
To cap it all off – and it’s at this point that our rather innocuous answer to the rhetorical question posed earlier comes into play –neither one of the actors can help who they are or what they do. Suffice it to say, they’re all bound by nature, their common nature.
To be sure, we still haven’t answered the poet’s leading question –what makes the spider, the moth and the flower do what they do? what makes them tick? – but we’re on the brink. To solve our puzzle once and for all, we must turn to the final question posed by the poet in the couplet.
“What but design of darkness to appall? –
If design govern in a thing so small.”
Offhand, the entire construction of the couplet, along with the term “darkness” appended to the term “design,” catches us unawares and throws us aback. Without question, it’s a powerful phrasing, however much one may find the syntax impenetrable. All is not lost, however, for we still can, indeed we must! fall upon what we already know, to navigate our way through muddy waters.
“Design of [or by] darkness” simply cannot be the intended meaning! If there was a significant turning point in Mr. Frost’s poem, it was the shift in perspective from moral (i.e., judgmental) to natural point of view; and this shift categorically precludes any reading of the phrase as though carrying any dark or sinister connotation. Which isn’t to say that some of us, especially under extreme circumstances, might be tempted to blame even Nature for the loss of a loved one – an understandable, if only temporary, human response – but that’s not the poet’s conception of the grand scheme of things. As far as he’s concerned, Nature is blameless! (I’d venture to add that in Frost’s eyes, grief would be the appropriate response to a loss, not blame.)
Consequently, “design” cannot be of or by darkness, as though orchestrated by an evil genius or some dark, sinister force: if anything, it’s either good (if God is the presumptive architect) or simply neutral (if it’s Nature).
The poet doesn’t say, but if it’s the latter (and that’s my reading of choice), one might well add that just like justice, nature, too, is blind. Indeed, it could very well be that the term “darkness,” with which we’ve been struggling all along, is the poet’s synonym here for “blindness.” And that would set things right.
One would be remiss not to comment on the Frost’s last verse. If anything, it’s a masterpiece in understatement.
Consider the simple fact that when it comes to most of our experiences with loss, death and the like, we seem to employ a scale of sorts and bring thus our own values into play. Right or wrong, humans are on top of the list, followed by animals, plants, and all manner of variegated life.
Even within each category, we’re prone to employ an internal scale, as it were. Thus, our significant others are accorded a far greater value than people we’ve never met, let alone people we despise. Within the animal kingdom too, our pets, for instance, are object of affection, even love, whereas we hardly share the same sentiment with respect to animals we consider fit for human consumption. Plants, too, are preferable to weed. And the examples of some such hierarchical schema both within and across all categories abound.
Furthermore, there seems to be another scale operating alongside the aforementioned one – a scale relative to size. To wit, an elephant or a lion are usually regarded with awe, if only for their sheer size or raw power. And as a rule of thumb, the smaller the organism, the more insignificant it is in our eyes.
Which brings us to creatures we happen to detest and then go to great lengths to exterminate, pests, for instance: creatures such as mice, cockroaches, bed bugs, insects of all kind – and yes, our moth and spider among them. Well, it is the poet’s crowning achievement that he virtually breaks down all the artificial valuations we tend to impose on life – all forms of life – in hope that we just might take our blinders off and see the world anew.
Design may be blind and impersonal as well, but it is also the great leveler – which is to say that it is just as much at work, and in the exact same way, in all creatures great and small, even the lowly spider.
Ours is only to observe and to marvel!