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?
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: