Poetry Sunday: Design

This month’s Poetry Sunday features another classic by a famous poet who’s already made an appearance: Robert Frost, the skeptical New Englander whose work has become iconic of the American experience.

Frost’s views on God are complex. In some of his letters, he calls himself “an old dissenter”, “secular till the last go down”, and said there were “no vampires, no ghouls, no demons, nothing but me”. In others, he expresses belief in and even fear of God, whom he usually identifies as the wrathful Old Testament deity Jehovah. Still, after twenty years of marriage, his wife said he was an atheist, and he did not deny it. (See Robert Frost: Old Testament Christian or Atheist? for a fuller exploration of Frost’s religious beliefs.)

What I find remarkable is that so many of Frost’s poems, when speaking of people and their relationships, are warm, welcoming, thoroughly humanist. Only when he turns to the subject of God does his poetry become dark and terrifying. Consider poems like “Once by the Pacific“, Frost’s famous vision of the apocalypse, or “A Loose Mountain“, which envisions God as a cosmic destroyer waiting to hurl a meteor at the Earth like a stone thrown from a sling. I think the best way to describe Frost is as a frustrated freethinker, one who never fully shook off the religious indoctrination of his past.

Today’s poem, simply titled “Design”, explores some of Frost’s own beliefs about God and nature. It comes from his 1936 collection A Further Range. In it, the poet muses on the experience of witnessing a camouflaged spider capture a helpless moth, and poses a version of the same question that has stymied philosophers since antiquity: why would a benevolent deity create a world where predation and death were integral parts of the natural order? If God oversees the course of events, then must not the evil be part of his will, as well as the good?

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.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Polly

    It makes sense that a poet would make references to god. It’s an excellent literary vehicle, 2nd only to the Devil, himself! I wouldn’t think it has anything to do with actual belief.
    If you want to anthropomorphize all the evil and violence of humanity and nature, god is a pretty good focal point, an angry god at that.

    I still refer to god, the devil, and Hell in daily life, though I don’t hold even the slightest suspicion that of any of them exist. It’s just more dramatic to throw in such colorful characters and places.

    btw – raisins are indeed Satan’s droppings, befouling many an otherwise heavenly cookie.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    I used to date a girl who said she was Catholic, yet didn’t believe in god, so I sort of identify with Mrs. Frost. I used to tell her that she was an atheist, just like me, and she would insist that she was raised Catholic and her family is Catholic, so she is then turn around and admit that she didn’t believe in god.

  • Polly

    OMGF,

    Sometimes I think we take religion more seriously than believers.
    One of my wife’s co-workers, let’s call her Jane, belongs to a church where they follow a bunch of strict rules. It’s called Church of Jesus Christ or some such thing. And she follows those rules and attends the church…erm…religiously, and married a firm believer from her church.
    Anyway, when a preschooler asked Jane a question about Jesus, she replied, “Jesus is dead.”(!) She’s said this on different occasions.
    I’m fairly certain that’s not one of the tenets of the church.

    So, what does it all mean?
    Hell if I know. (there i go again)

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    You know, this really is a remarkable poem. I’d give a lot to be able to keep a heavy argument like that in my poetry while still being able to be so delicate and thoughtful and, well, poetic.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    Polly,

    Sometimes I think we take religion more seriously than believers.

    That’s probably pretty true for the run-of-the-mill theist that only believes simply because that’s what is done.

    So, what does it all mean?

    I hope it means that religion is fading, that people are taking it less and less seriously. The more people start to disregard it, perhaps the more they will wonder whether they need it or not, whether it makes sense to carry it around or not, or they will just drop it and notice that they didn’t notice. One can dream, right?


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