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(Words count: 3049)


By Robert Frost

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, 5
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? 10
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.

Krittiya Sittichane

Department of Western Language
Faculty of Humanities and Social Science
Thaksin University

Lexical Analysis

Irony in Words: An Elaboration of Robert Frost’s “Design”

According to Paul Simpson’s Language Through Literature: An introduction

(1997), lexis is vocabulary in all features, including words and their meaning. The
meaning of word is specifically called lexical semantics, and a unit of meaning in
lexical semantics is called lexeme. Lexical semantics is traditionally divided into
sense and referent of a word. In brief, “sense” is the ways meanings are organized in
the language system while “referent” is the concrete object we perceive in real-world.
(Simpson: 64-66) These sense and referent are opposite to Ferdinand de Saussure’s
signifier and signified on which signifier and signified does not need to confine only
in one context ,while Simpson’s only focus on one context.
The study of lexis concerns chiefly with the idea that one word does not
convey same meanings in different contexts. Consequently, the study of lexis is
distinctive from the study of words in the dictionary; it does not concern with the
various possibilities of meanings of a word but focuses on the particular meaning of a
word in particular context. In other words, it pays attention to “sense” and “referent”
rather than general meanings. To specify a word’s meaning, it is necessary to consider
the textual context, i.e. words that are preceding and following the one we are seeking
out its meaning. Beside those words, the collocation or words that are used together
can help us to find the specific meaning. Both surrounding words and collocation are
lexical elements.
The knowledge of the lexis is not only useful in phonetic field but also
adaptable in literary analysis, especially in poetry, where foregrounding imagery is
created by the poet’s lexical usage and selection. Analyzing lexical semantics in the
poem can possibly bring about its other messages hidden under the author’s diction or
word choice. To support this statement, I choose Robert Frost’s “Design” because his
delicate and sensitive portrayal of imageries arouses my imagination and his subtle
lexical usage provides the possibility to freely interpret.

I follow the method of New Criticism in analyzing “Design”. Remarkably, this
theory suits properly with the lexical study since it focuses on mere words and their
interrelationship with each other within the text. Cleanth Brooks, an influential New
Critic and the author of Irony as a Principle of Structure, has introduced “irony”, a
familiar technique in figurative language, into this kind of analysis. He claims that
irony is a “principle of structure” in poetry. He captures the meaning of “irony” as the
opposite of what it is said from the usage in poetic technique. Then, he applies it in his
analysis to show how the words’ relations in the text can contribute what is “opposite
of what is purports to say literally.” He also claims that irony is “an acknowledgement
of the pressure of a context”, and that this “internal pressures balance and mutually
support each other.”(Brook: 189-196) His remark not only makes the study of words
seems more interesting but also proves the variability of words’ meanings; even the
word “irony” itself suggests the different meanings in different contexts. While
“irony” in literary texts plays with the situations and the ignorance of the characters,
“irony” for Brooks focuses on the words and the reader’s perception. Thus, irony is
also a great tool for analyzing “Design”, the work of the modern poet who uses words
so economically yet profoundly.
As mentioned, the New Critics’ method considers only the interrelation
between words. As a result, it refuses any other historical or social context, including
the author’s background. Thus, I will concentrate only on the poem, leaving out any
information of Frost, in order to avoid the limitation of interpretation impacted by
such knowledge. My chief concern is the poem’s lexical semantics and their ironic
relationship with each other. Using irony, I will analyse the poem in three dimensions.
The First one is natural phenomena. The second is the dimension of irony in the
reader’s cognition, and the last one is the dimension of irony in pragmatics.
Reading the poem, we can see that the natural phenomenon is governed by a
design, of which we do not know the origin. At the beginning, the poet describes that
he notices a white spider on a white flower, holding up a white moth. All of them are
dead. The occurrence is quite plain but what create the reader’s impression is that
these three unanimated shapes are entirely white. Certainly, if they were not described
in white, all of us will relate them with other colors; the heal-all flower is actually
blue, while the moth and the spider are expected to be in the dark color, not innocent
white. From that simple scene the poet establishes the question-“What had the flower
to do with being white? /The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?” (lines 9-10) .

Initially, this incidence brings us the assumption about a natural food chain, in which
all creatures eat the others and are eaten by the others, creating the circle of life.
According to S. Spachman’s Plan or chance: The Meaning of Life in Robert Frost’s
Design (2006), the natural circle is subtly suggested; “Here a flower that is usually
blue has attracted the attention of a moth, who is by nature drawn toward light and
therefore is more likely to move toward a white flower—which radiates light even in
dim condition—than a blue flower. As a result, the moth has been killed by the white
spider.” However, if we take the last two lines of the poem into consideration, we will
find that Frost already admits that such sophisticated natural phenomenon is
unnatural; “What but design of darkness appall? /If design govern in a thing so small.”
It is a “design” that forces this extraordinary incidence to take place.
The title “Design”, which literally means plan, intention and an arrangement
with a particular intention, implies that the juxtaposition of the white spider, the white
flower and the white moth are made under the specific purpose. In line 8-“And dead
wings carried like a paper kite”- the image of “wing” which associates to freedom is
replaced by the word “paper kite”, connoting the idea of a delicate object, which is
completely controlled. Considering “What brought the kindred spider to that
height/Then steered the white thither in the night?” in lines 11-12, we know the
murdering scene does not happen by chance. The words “brought” and “steered” hint
us that, in the speaker’s point of view, the spider and the moth do not determine to
come to the flower together. They are in passive position and cannot escape. In this
light, the word “kindred”, which means belonging to the same group of family, hints
that the spider, the flower and the moth are same white, and belong to the same…
Although the speaker does not reveal in the poem who is the designer, we can
solve this mystery through the lexical analysis. Observing Frost’s diction, we can see
that Frost initiates the binary oppositions in the poem which are categorized into
“hunter” and “victim”, “death” and “life”, “dark” and “light”, “evil” and “innocent”.
Those binary oppositions are totally grouped as “bad” and “good”. Frost uses it to
create the irony by crossing words’ meaning in each group and juxtaposing them.
As I have noted earlier, Frost remarkably portrays three dimensions of irony.
The first is the irony of natural fact. Through out the poem, there are lexemes deviated
from the conventions of nature and portrayed in the opposite connotation. Using the
deviations (which I will analyse in next paragraph), he sets up an argument about the

belief that natural phenomena are not created by God, but by the poet who owns the
design even to “govern in a thing so small”. (line 14)
In line 2, the speaker finds that the spider is on “a white heal-all flower
holding a moth”. The flower’s position as an executing place or an altar to the
sacrifice of the moth or even the sacrifice of the spider (the spider also died on the
flower) again, contrasts with its name “heal-all” which literally means to make it
better or to save life. Actually, the “heal-all flower” is an herb, believed to be able to
cure all the sickness in the world, but in this context, it is a place of death. The flower
does not heal the moth. Instead, it functions as a place to kill it. Besides, the portrayal
of flower as an altar advocates the idea of poet’s power as the animals are sacrificed
for his design. Or it can be said that “heal-all” is poet’s word choice to make pun of
the word “kill-all” which associates to the context in the poem. Another fruitful
evidence, provoking the sense of divergence, is the portrayal of the color. The word
“night”, which normally is black color, is occupied by “whiteness” of snowy spider,
flower and moth. Besides, there is the color of “heal-all flower” in which the poet
depicts it as “white’ instead of natural “blue”.
The second dimension is irony of reader’s cognition. In “Design”, the
repetition of white color is reader understands because we recognize it as goodness,
purity and innocent. To manifest that design belongs to the poet, Frost, however,
distorts the words meaning from reader’s cognition. Words we recognize as “good”
meaning are ironically distorted in bad connotation in the poem. In line 1 as “I found a
dimpled spider, fat and white”, “dimpled”, “fat” and “white” give a description of a
baby or a doll which is opposed to the conventional identity of the spider as a “killer”.
The irony of words which literally have good meaning also appears in line 3
when the poet compares the heal-all flower with “a white piece of rigid satin cloth”.
The “white rigid satin cloth” connotes to the shroud, covering a corpse. The poet finds
the flower is covered by the snow which is white and lustrous like the “satin cloth”.
Nevertheless, the flower is the place of death. The “white piece of rigid satin cloth”,
therefore, is equivalent to shroud that hides the death, hopelessness and darkness
under the purity and beauty.
There is another irony of reader’s cognition between the notion of death and
life appearing in lines 4-6 when the poet describes that the spider, the flower and the
moth are “mixed ready to begin the morning right/like the ingredients of a witches’
broth”. The word “morning” suggests the beginning of life but the “witches’ broth”

suggests the devil and death. In line 7 , the irony appears again when Frost portrays
the spider as “snow-drop” ; the snow conventionally represents purity and innocence
but the poet makes the word “snow” becomes characteristic of the spider which bring
death to the victim.
Apart from the notion of irony, Frost chooses the word “blight” in line 4 in
order to, again, make pun of the word “bright” which is juxtaposition to the preceding
“death” in the same line, and relates to the idea that all characters are white.
The final dimension is irony in pragmatics. George Yule’s The study of
language (1996) describes pragmatics as “the study of invisible meaning, or how we
recognize what is meant even when it is not actually said or written”. (127) He also
gives an example of pragmatics that “when we read or hear pieces of language, we
normally try to understand not only what the words mean, but what the writer or
speaker of those words intended to convey”. Hence, we need pragmatics to
conceptualize the idea the poet presents in poetry.
According to the pragmatics’ concept, Frost’s “Design” is a vivid example of
irony established in pragmatics because the poem shows that the poet’s illocutionary
act deviates from readers attempt to understand. To begins ‘Design” with the phrase
“I found” (line 1) suggests that the situation is not actually happening but is narrated
by the speaker. It is possible to say that it is the poet who creates and designs
everything that is deviant from the natural convention. However, poet who arranges
the situation cunningly asks us about the origin of design, as if to arouse our curiosity
so that we will read the poem carefully again and again. Also, it could be suggested
that the poet’s design intends to make the irony of the general assumption that the
design must govern in only a large scope. Few people pay attention to such a little
creatures as a spider, a moth and a flower heal-all, and lesser people notice subtle and
delicate elements in the poem when they are trying to find its great and elevated
Nevertheless, “Design” can be considered as the micro and macro pragmatics
on which micro pragmatic is the way Frost intends to convey his idea and macro
pragmatic is to provide the reader chances to subjectively fill the blank answering the
cause of the phenomenon. As no one can suggest the true idea, my interpretation is
one of the possibilities to decode the author’s creativity.
Analyzing poetry through lexis allows us to see the new idea deviant from the
uniform interpretations. In The major Theme of Robert Frost, Radcliffe Squires

(1963) expresses the design as “an accident rather than intent…by the implication that
there may be no design for anything whether great or small, nothing but an ash-white
plain without love or faith or hope, where ignorant appetites cross by chance.”
(Squires: 27) While Squires interprets “design” as a chance, James M. Cox’s Robert
Frost: A Collection of Critical Essays. (1962) notes that this design is “governed by
the purely statistical laws of quantum mechanics, of random distribution, or admitted
to Pascal’s ‘eternal silence of those infinite spaces.’” ( Cox: 90-91) From “Design”
which created by Frost’s design, we can perceive that poetry and the world have much
in common i.e. they are made up via somewhat design to create the completeness. To
convey an idea, poetry needs an arrangement of lexis which is based from the idea
that every lexical item in the poem is equivalently necessary. Missing just one word,
the poem is incomplete. Similar to the lexical preparation, the ecological arrangement
is necessary for the earth because it controls the balance of various lives. If a spider
refuses to hunt a moth, there will be an increasing number of moths. This will effect
to other creatures such as flowers and butterflies, and will continually effect to the
whole natural circle. Hence, what the poet tries to communicate is that we need
design, even though it is the design of darkness (to give a status as killers to animals),
to make the different systems complete.
With regard to the linguistic analysis, it may be observed that in “Design”
there are other linguistic elements which also advocate the idea of poet’s design.
“Syntax” is also one approach to manifest that the design belongs to Frost. “Syntax”
is the sentence structure. It captures the way words are arranged to form sentences or
phrases, or the rules of grammar which control this. In “Design”, the poet
demonstrates the idea of his owns the design by making the parallel between sentence
structure and the poem’s content. The poem is written in nested relative clause .The
pattern of syntax is layers of subordinate clause as a modifier as in the very beginning
of the poem -- “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” (lines 1-3). This patterns of syntax
suggests the poet’s elaborate arrangement to the poem, not a chance, similar to the
natural occurrence which elaborately designed by the poet. There is an evidence of the
idea that the poet owns the design. In the sestet the poet sets up a series of question
sentence as

The meaning of syntax is from Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all? 10
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.
(lines 9-14)

However, those interrogative sentences are rhetorical that the poet sets up in order to
answer himself at the final moment. The poet does not want the answer but he allows
us to think about what he is saying. Theses rhetorical questions are created to arouse
our curiosity and draw our attention. Therefore, it can show the poet’s cunning
arrangement which similar to the arrangement of food chain.
Beside lexis and syntax, many of the elements can also be observed. Each one
brings about different interpretations, and gives impression to the reader. As there are
variously accessible elements to analyse the poem, it proves that poetry does not
convey only single but various meanings, depending on what methodology we apply.
That is why poetry is repeatedly explored through ages, and it is possible to say that
poetry is still ‘alive and always talk to us.’


Brooks, Cleant. Irony as a Principle of Structure, A supplementary text for
subject LT 611 (History of Literary Criticism).

Cox, James M.(1962) Robert Frost: A Collection of Critical Essays,

New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

“Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English” Longman. CD-Rom.

Essex: IDM, 2003

Simpson, Paul (1997) Language Through Literature: An Introduction,

London: Routledge.

Spachman, S. Plan or chance: The Meaning of Life in Robert Frost’s Design.

Commentary on Frost’s Design. 19 December 2006

Squires, Redcliff (1963) The major Theme of Robert Frost,

Michigan: The University of Michigan.

Yule, George (2000) The study of language, (2nd edn),

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.