Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Technical Appreciation of Poetry, For Example in Frost's "Design"

The last post and the Sept. 20, 2009, one on Emily Dickinson address the technical side of poetry in terms of versification, metrics, imagery, expectation, and surprise. It is tempting to choose a complex poem to illustrate all the different ways that word choice, sentence structure, imagery, figurative language and even punctuation are used by poets as rich resources of expression and suggestion. Instead I’ll choose a “simple one” to show a few examples.

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 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.
(“Design” by Robert Frost)

Before analyzing the color symbolism, metaphors, and nature imagery, it is worth noting how the poem begins in a familiar, almost offhand, voice, “I found,” suggesting a casual encounter on a roadside walk. Yet the language becomes increasingly formal as the poem goes on until we get to words like “kindred” and “thither” in the last few lines. Is this merely accidental or does the shift in level of language parallel the shift from casual observation to philosophical speculation in the content of the poem? And, if the latter, is it merely an unconscious fitting of language to thought or is it part of the intentional crafting of the poem? Regardless of how we answer this question, it is remarkable how word choice can create different expressive voices appropriate to what is being said.

Similarly, the sentence structure grows increasingly complex as each stanza develops. The first three lines, though tightly structured, constitute a relatively straightforward statement. But the sentence continues piling on appositives and modifiers until it becomes densely complex.

Of the three questions in the second stanza, the second is the most straightforward grammatically but uses the most formal language. The first question separates the appositive from its antecedent noun (“flower”), creating a jarring effect grammatically that parallels the seeming contradiction of describing a flower as both white and blue at the same time. The third question uses “appall” as an intransitive verb, an unconventional, if not obscure, expression, which sounds almost archaic, once again using language that reinforces ancient philosophical questions about chance and fate and longstanding religious questions about the moral goodness of nature, including human nature. Do we live in a purposeful universe of “design” or do we live in a random world of accident and chance? And, if it is orderly and purposeful, what does it mean if death and suffering are built into the design? The unstated question is “What kind of designer would design such a world 'to appall'?"

The dashes create an informal, conversational effect, but the tightly structured, highly composed sentences contradict that style, sounding more educated, formal, and complex. The tension of opposites again parallels the juxtaposition of casual observer and philosophical thinker or serious moralist.

Other examples of opposition include the irony of “assorted characters of death and blight” being “mixed ready to begin the morning, right” (emphasis added) and the white imagery in contrast with “a witches’ broth” and “dead wings.”

White is a conventional symbol of purity and innocence (at least in Western European based culture), but in this poem the white spider, flower, and moth represent “death and blight.” As Melville reminds us in “The Whiteness of the Whale” chapter of Moby Dick, white can just as easily be associated with the pallor of sickness and death or the burial shroud as with purity and innocence or the wedding gown.

“What had that flower to do with being white…?” is a question with multiple meanings. The heal-all is typically blue but occasionally white. Consider the coincidence of the rare white heal-all serving as the stage for the white spider’s predatory attack on the white moth. Is it mere chance or part of the orderly design and purpose of nature? If the latter, it is a “design of darkness” serving to “appall” our na├»ve sense of God’s goodness and nature’s innocence. How innocent is innocence if “death and blight” are integral to its nature? The color symbolism of white, blue, and “darkness” in their varying relationships is what gives those questions their poetic power.

Another irony is the heal-all, a flower known in folk culture for its healing power, serving as a natural death bed for the moth.

In addition to irony and symbolism, metaphor abounds. Three are obvious similes: the moth being held up “…like a piece of rigid satin cloth,” the “assorted characters…like the ingredients of a witches’ broth,” and the “dead wings carried like a paper kite.” Lest these comparisons be thought frivolous poetic flourishes, consider the association of “rigid” with death, of a satin cloth with a death shroud, of witches with evil (a more cultural than natural comparison), of a kite with playfulness (ironically contrasting with the “dead wings”). Other metaphors include the moth being “steered” and “design” governing “in a thing so small,” metaphors which suggest a hidden power with a dark purpose.

Finally, we are led by almost every technical device available to the poet to conclude that this seemingly simple poem is a dark allegory of Mother Nature who brings both life and death, of “original sin,” and of innocence that cannot be separated from evil. And if the inseparability of good and evil “govern in a thing so small,” what are the implications for human nature and for the universe at large?

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