6 minutes reading time (1118 words)

Robert Frost's 'Design' and 'The Rule of the Shorter Term'

After publishing Charlotte Gann’s book, Noir, I’ve started to think of noir poems as a genre — poems with shadows; poems that set up the dark/light opposition. Poems that expose.

So it struck me yesterday that Robert Frost’s sonnet ‘Design’ was another of them. And it appears I can quote it in full, since it’s listed as a poem that’s in the public domain in the USA in Wikisource. 

But wait – copyright is a strange business. ‘Design’ is in the public domain (free for use) in the USA because it was published before January 1, 1923 and its copyright term was not renewed in its 28th year after publication. That is American law. (If you don’t want to know any more about copyright, skip the next 5 paragraphs.)

But what about in other countries? Robert Frost died in 1963 (53 years ago) and so the work can also be used freely in areas where the legal copyright term is the author’s life plus 50 years or less.

Okay. I am in the UK (though you may not be) where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years. Still, I now learn that some countries have native copyright terms that apply ‘the rule of the shorter term’ to foreign works.

It’s a foreign work. So am I in a country that applies the rule of the shorter term? Apparently ‘the rule of the shorter term’ does, at present, apply to countries in the European Union. Oh but following Brexit, I shan’t be in the EU much longer.

Also, the Wiki Talk page for ‘the rule of the shorter term’ suggests it doesn’t apply even now because of the EU legal caveat that says: “The fact that there is a reference to national execution measures does not necessarily mean that these measures are either comprehensive or in conformity.”

Do I really understand this? No. But I am a publisher. I care about copyright and protection of creative rights, so I’ve decided not to reproduce the poem on this blog for another 17 years, although you can read it here, here or here.

So what was I going to say about that poem? Oh yes. It’s Noir-ness. But also why it’s such a beautiful piece of writing. Have I mentioned how much I love rhyme? And in this fully-rhyming poem there are only three. There’s ‘white’ – the key word that recurs in both octet and sestet (and this sonnet physically divides the two) – which is chiming through lines 1, 4, 5, 8, 9 and 11,  in order to arrive at its true partner at the end of line 12, which is ‘night’. Then there’s ‘moth’, one of the key players; and there’s the ‘heal-all’, the common wild flower. Three rhymes: three characters.

But I’m getting technical and I haven’t mentioned the picture because you have to have in mind what the poet has seen – just an ordinary thing, really – something you might bend and note on a country walk first thing in the morning. (You might want to open the poem itself in a different window.)

The poet has noticed a fat, white, dimpled spider – arresting because we tend to think of spiders as black – although most spiders aren’t. More unusually, this spider is on a common wild flower, the ‘heal-all’ which is usually a purply blue. But this time the flower is white.

The spider catches the poet’s attention, hard to see at first being white on white, and then he sees it’s carrying a dead moth, and the moth is white too. So all the creatures are white – as he gradually ‘sees’ what he’s seeing – ‘like the ingredients of a witches’ broth’ (so this is a Hallowe’en poem too, if ever there was one).

Yet even in the first stanza, what strange oppositions! The three ‘characters of death and blight’ are mixed ‘ready to begin the morning right’. But what morning begins ‘right’ with such an assortment?

This brings the poet to three questions in a row in the sestet of the poem, and the tone changes from macabre fascination to a desperate plea: ‘What had that flower to do with being white, / The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?’ It’s a Shakespearean switch, like sonnet 138 when the speaker suddenly reaches desperately for some kind of understanding: “But wherefore says she not she is unjust? / And wherefore say not I that I am old?’

But Shakespeare works towards a cynical resolution whereas Frost goes for more questions: ‘What brought the kindred spider to that height, / Then steered the white moth thither in the night?' (I love the word 'thither'.) This bit reminds me of Blake’s noir poem, ‘The Sick Rose’, with the ‘invisible worm, /That flies in the night’, and surely Blake, too, whatever the wider meaning of that piece, had been shocked more than once by looking into the heart of a garden rose and seeing maggots.

But Frost is a crafty makar; and all poems are in some way or other about themselves. They are designed. So in the last question – which is also an answer: ‘What but design of darkness to appall?’ – he stacks up the weight of evil with the D alliteration but also brings in ‘appall’, which comes from the Latin ‘pallescere’, to grow pale. And this also contains ‘pall’, the cloth thrown over a coffin or casket and usually, these days, white. (Remember Wilfrid Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ – ‘The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall’?)

What a phrase – ‘design of darkness to appall’ – what a cracking phrase! And then how masterfully Frost brings the sonnet back to reality, back to an afterthought, back to the innocent heal-all – ‘If design govern in a thing so small’. If there’s God, if there’s a creator, if there’s a purpose behind that sight of spider and moth (which is, in fact, neither good nor bad, only as it strikes the viewer). This is just a fourteen-line poem but the design is extraordinary.

‘We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us and, if we do not agree, puts its hand into its breeches pocket,’ wrote John Keats to John Hamilton Reynolds in 1818, and quite right too. But Frost’s design in ‘Design’ is not palpable. It’s subtle and beautiful, discoverable by close attention. The smallest line in the poem shrinks back to the word ‘small’. It’s a fabulous piece of making, and in its own beauty offers a counter-balance to death, blight and the indisputable fact that the common heal-all, white or blue, doesn’t – and can’t – heal all.

Photograph of common heal-all (blue) 

Photo by Ivar Leidus, (Iifar), 
Creative Commons Licensed.

 

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Comments 3

Guest - Davina Prince on Sunday, 09 October 2016 10:58

An interesting poem and thank you for introducing it - and taking me back to Frost. I looked it up it in his Collected (my preference for page rather than screen) and found another noir poem facing it - 'Afterflakes'. 'In the thick of a teeming snowfall/ I saw my shadow on snow'; then, in only fifteen lines Frost reaches sunlight, and the snowflakes have become 'frost knots on an airy gauze'. Dark/light - a new way to look at his work.

An interesting poem and thank you for introducing it - and taking me back to Frost. I looked it up it in his Collected (my preference for page rather than screen) and found another noir poem facing it - 'Afterflakes'. 'In the thick of a teeming snowfall/ I saw my shadow on snow'; then, in only fifteen lines Frost reaches sunlight, and the snowflakes have become 'frost knots on an airy gauze'. Dark/light - a new way to look at his work.
Guest - Charlotte Gann on Sunday, 09 October 2016 13:04


I love this, and I think it does all hinge (for me) on the 'desperate plea': 'What had that flower to do with being white'. That tone shift. Held at the heart of the small, perfectly-formed box-like design.

I love this, and I think it does all hinge (for me) on the 'desperate plea': 'What had that flower to do with being white'. That tone shift. Held at the heart of the small, perfectly-formed box-like design.
Marcia Menter on Sunday, 09 October 2016 14:47

Oh Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud--
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light. ...

I think Frost is walking in the very early morning, before the sun has come up, or before its light has reached the flower/spider/moth. Design of darkness to appall--thank you for reminding me of that word's double meaning.

Oh Star (the fairest one in sight), We grant your loftiness the right To some obscurity of cloud-- It will not do to say of night, Since dark is what brings out your light. ... I think Frost is walking in the very early morning, before the sun has come up, or before its light has reached the flower/spider/moth. Design of darkness to appall--thank you for reminding me of that word's double meaning.
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