In high school we studied a poem by Robert Frost called "Design." It deposited enduring fragments that echo in our mind from time to time, and recently we spent a quiet afternoon in the Poetry Corner of the Lounge to revisit the poem.  

Like many readers of a certain age who were exposed to poetry before the Internet came along, we often regarded the study of it as the bane of English class: poetry was reading without the engaging elements of plot or characters, and awkward class discussions in which no one had a very good idea what they were talking about or what might be a suitable thing to say. But happily, something good rubbed off from it, and we left the institution with treasured shards of poetry committed to memory, and enough tools in hand to find a way into other poems on our own. The efforts of high school English teachers to impart an appreciation of poetry to indifferent students should not be underestimated: these teachers' quiet contribution to human culture and happiness is something that cannot be precisely measured, but we are all far better for it.

Fast-forward 40 years, and you might think that imparting an appreciation of poetry to young and restless minds is an even more formidable undertaking. Poetry hasn't changed — on one level, it's still just black words on a white page — but now poetry has competition for young people's attention that is far more deafening than it was then: music videos, iPods, text-messaging, and every audio-visual distraction that our wired and wireless age provides can make the study of a poem seem even more of a dull chore than it once did.

Happily, however, you only have to poke around the Internet to realize that old-fashioned poetry is alive and well, and has many friends. Google Design + "Robert Frost" and you find that this poem has not simply been gathering dust in anthologies since its early 20th-century publication. Not only that: information that you can grab online can instantly illuminate corners of the poem that might have remained opaque for people who studied it a generation ago.

The poem begins:

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth

There's a lot to be said for conjuring these images out of your imagination, but if you don't actually know what a heal-all is (how many high school students do?), there's already a barrier erected. With a few clicks and keystrokes, however, you can easily find a picture of a heal-all online. You can even find a picture of what you might never find in nature yourself: the rare white heal-all (most of them are purple or blue).


Photo courtesy of Dan Mullen

If the dimpled spider doesn't quite jump into your mind's eye, they're not so hard to find either. Some white spiders are dimpled naturally, like this one.


Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

When Frost wrote his poem (it was published in 1936), and even when we first studied it, the tempest that currently rages in education about intelligent design was not really on anyone's radar. Today, Frost's poems, including this one, serve as poster children and whipping boys on both sides of the ID debate, and this fact supports one aspect of the life that "Design" has online today. But most folks who have bothered to call attention to the poem online do so for a less agenda-driven reason: it's just a great poem. It doesn't yield up all of its secrets on the first reading, and perhaps not even on the 51st reading. It does just what great art is supposed to do: it shines a light on a subject that we might not otherwise investigate or be able to comprehend; it inspires people to reflect and create. As evidence of that, you can find all sorts of "Design" inspired web pages: pages with photos, criticism, polemics, and even a couple of YouTube versions of the poem, in which videographers (young ones, it looks like) recite the poem against a background of images they have assembled.

What we found in the poem — when looking at it after a gap of years in which adolescence finished, adulthood descended, and the "golden years" begin to loom — is that nothing about the poem has aged a day. The poem uses as its point of departure an encounter with nature: an experience that is as old as the human race, and that we hope may always be available to us.  It's a sonnet (Italian style) and mainly follows the strict requirements for one, echoing perhaps the ways in which design may govern or not govern a thing. But it also deviates from everything you expect of a sonnet in several ways: in the rhyme scheme, in the meter of particular lines, and in the presentation and treatment of its subject.

What we puzzle about after returning to the poem after so many years is this: the last two lines of the poem, a couplet, are as follows:

What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.

How do you parse that first line: is "design of darkness" a noun phrase and subject for which the infinitive "to appall" is the verb? Is the "of" a genitive one, such that "darkness' design" would have about the same meaning? Is it possible that the line is a construction of the "there was a variety of foods to eat" type, in which a transitive verb at the end (appall) finds its nominal object in the preceding noun (darkness)? You can find something to support any of those readings, or you can take the out offered in the last line, whose subjunctive offers a throwaway option for the idea of design.

Here's the whole poem, with a few words linked to illuminating wordmaps in the VT:

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.