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"A thing so small": The Nature of Meter in Robert Frost's "Design"

James Murphy

Modernism/modernity, Volume 14, Number 2, April 2007, pp. 309-328


(Article)
Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press
DOI: 10.1353/mod.2007.0044

For additional information about this article


http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/mod/summary/v014/14.2murphy.html

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a thing so small
309

A thing so small:The Nature of


Meter in Robert Frosts Design1

James Murphy

Robert Frosts Design is a poem about interpretation. The


sonnets speaker finds a white spider eating a white moth on an
unnaturally white flower. The sheer unlikelihood of this event
leads him to ask what the meaning of it could be and, more
fundamentally, whether the question of meaning is appropriate
at all. The final lineIf design govern in a thing so small.is,
despite its period, not a declaration but a double question. Question one: Is there design in the natural world? Question two: If
there is, then what? Does natural design mean anything? These
questionsWhat am I looking at, why is it there, and what might
it mean?are, of course, basic to literary interpretation. A thing
so small, thus, refers to the poem Design as well as the spiders
meal. What makes Frosts poem remain challenging even today
is the way it brings the literary and the natural together.
In Design and his thinking about literary form, especially
meter, Frost displays a remarkably prescient sense of the ways
science and literature would move closer to each other as the
twentieth century went on. When Richard Poirier revealed the
legacy of William James and his response to Darwin in the poem,
he did not appreciate just how profoundly Frost grasped the
impact of Darwins ideas on how we understand order, intention,
and meaning.2 Frost was nowhere more ahead of his time than in
his understanding of one of English literatures oldest and most
dominant conventions, iambic pentameter. Frosts conscious
awareness, rather than intuitive sense, of the role meter plays in
verse and how it does so anticipates generative metrics account
of iambic pentameter. Generative metrics also brings together
science and literature, drawing on the insights of contemporary

modernism

/ modernity

volume fourteen, number


two, pp

309328.

2007 the johns hopkins


university press

J. Stephen Murphy
is a PhD student in
English at the University
of California-Berkeley,
where he is completing
his dissertation, Modernist Revision and the
Matter of Form. This
study examines thehistorical development
of modernist theories
and practices of revision, paying particular
attention to the tensions revision creates
between historicism
and formalism.

M O D E R N I S M / modernity

310 linguistics, especially in the field of phonology, in order to develop a universal grammar of metrical verse forms. Generative metrics suggests that literature is, at least at
the level of its sonic material, an outgrowth of nature. Frosts Design asks if nature
can be treated as a text, i.e., read and interpreted. This paper moves in the opposite
direction; it asks if texts can be naturalizeddescribed as possessing innate formby
examining the meter of Design.
Design is a particularly apt subject because meter plays an important role in it,
especially in the final line, where Frost poses his fundamental questions about natural
and literary order. I will be using generative metrics to scan and interpret the poem.
In doing so, I hope to introduce generative metrics to readers unfamiliar with it and
convince them of its superiority to traditional scansion, not only for Frost but for all
metrical verse. The best defense of the method will be a richer reading of Design,
one that shows how the oft-missed metrical event in the final line matters. Readers
of poetry, unfortunately, too often treat meter as a thing so small. The reasons for
this neglect are not unrelated to Design. Many students of poetry, hobbled by the
unwieldy and uninformative apparatus of classical Greek prosody, struggle first even to
discover the meter in a line of verse; worse, once theyve done so, many are left asking,
Now what? It is hard to find order, harder yet to find meaning. Much of the focus
of this paper will be on the final line of Design and, more specifically, on the word
design in the line; from a thing so small as where a word-stress falls in the meter of
one line, Frost manages to make large claims about nature, matter, order, intention,
and meaning.

I. Meaning and Matter


First published in 1922, Robert Frosts Design would seem to flaunt its insignificance in comparison to the much larger and far more radical works associated with
that iconic yearT. S. Eliots The Waste Land and James Joyces Ulysses. The poems
reference, in its final line, to a thing so small is intended to hold a mirror up to itself.
The poem is small in size (a sonnet), in subject matter (a spiders eating of a moth
on a mutated flower), and, it may seem, in ambition. What Design shares with The
Waste Land and Ulysses is an anxiety over the source of order and meaning; the question, at its most basic, is are they made or found? The debate between idealism and
realism is ancient, but it gained energy on both sides at the turn of the century with
the enormous growth of capitalisms ability to commodify reality and with advances in
the natural and physical sciences, which at once seemed to penetrate deeper into the
truth of the universe and to make that truth more abstract and mysterious. As science
and commerce despiritualize every corner of modern life, how is one to find or create
meaning? Indeed is meaning to be found, or is it created by artists?
In Ulysses, Order, and Myth, Eliot took the latter position, arguing that modernist art must stop emulating the mummified stuff from a museum and invent new
forms of representation as a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a

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a thing so small

significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary


history.3 Eliot claimed that the mythic method of Ulysses had the importance of a
scientific discovery and he often displayed a fondness for scientific terms in his criticism, but he was interested in science more as a source for metaphors than as a method
for discovering the worlds order (177). This lip service to science, as Timothy Steele
has suggested in his study of the modernists rejection of metrical verse, was common
among the high modernists, who often enough misunderstood the science they drew
on in their critical writing.4
Frost, on the other hand, took science, particularly Darwin, very seriously, as Robert
Faggen has shown.5 The major contribution Darwins work made to Frosts thought
was that it forced him to think hard about the paradox that as humanity grew more
intellectually and culturally sophisticated, the distance between it and nature shrank
rather than grew. We might be natures most creative inventors, but we are also natures
most creative invention. While the rest of the world fretted about how far away we were
from the natural world, an anxiety that came to a head three years after Design was
published, in the Scopes monkey trial, Frost realized that Darwins really radical idea
was that nature was not so far away from us. It can design incredible worlds of order
and do so without any intelligence or spirit at all. This ideanot only that the material
world possesses order but also that it can create itmade Darwin the most dangerous
of all materialists. Frost realized early on that evolution mattered for modern artists
and thinkers mainly as a question of design.6

II. Design, design!


Design is not wholly a product of 1922; the poem began life circa 1912 as In
White. Frost made several significant revisions to the poem, none more meaningful
than his rewriting of the final line, which originally read, Design, design! Do I use
the word aright (14)? While the ending of Design is superior to this conclusion, it
is unfortunate that we lost the line because it gave voice to an anxiety raised by the
advent of modern science, exacerbated by Darwin, and still troubling contemporary
culture.
So what is Frost asking here? As indicated by his repetition of the word, he is worrying about the relation between the two most commonly used senses of the noun
design, here summarized from the Oxford English Dictionary.
I. A mental plan

1. A plan or scheme conceived in the mind and intended for subsequent
execution

2. In weaker sense: Purpose, aim, intention
II. A plan in art

1. A preliminary sketch for a picture or other work of art; the plan of
a building or any part of it, or the outline of a piece of decorative
work.

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312

2. The combination of artistic details or architectural features which


go to make up a picture, statue, building, etc.; the artistic idea as
executed.7

The noun design designates a mental plan or intention and a physical plan or formal
order. In the very word itself, we observe the split between idealism and materialism.
Design designates both interiority and exteriority, priority and posterity. Modern French
goes to the trouble to distinguish between these two senses, with the first sense (hereafter D1) translated dessein and the second sense (D2) dessin (OED Online). Frosts
dilemma in In White and Design is not so much to decipher the meaning of the
design laid out before him, but to decide whether D2 (artfully laid out form) indicates
D1 (an intention and, thus, an intender) or whether D2 can exist without D1.8
Frost is essentially rehearsing the Argument from Design, which predates the
Enlightenment but became prominent then as a way to bring science and theology
into accord. It relied on and reinforced the identification between order (D2) and
intention (D1), through an exercise somewhat akin to what is known today as reverse
engineeringtaking the end result and working backward to the cause. The philosopher Daniel Dennett has laid out the structure of the Argument from Design in his
Cosmic Pyramid:
GOD

MIND

DESIGN

ORDER

CHAOS

NOTHING

The Cosmic Pyramid mirrors not only the hierarchy of being, from the top down, but
also the path that the rational believer follows up to God.
But then Darwin came along and revealed the fundamental error of the Argument
from Design. The move from order to design is fine, but mind is a non sequitur. It was
Darwins discovery of Natural Selection that made it no longer necessary to go from the
wonderful, even seemingly intelligent design of the world to an intelligent designer.
Natural Selection explains the creation of immensely sophisticated order through,
as Dennett puts it, nothing but a set of individually mindless steps succeeding each
other without the help of any intelligent supervision (59). Darwins dangerous idea,
Dennett explains, is that Design can emerge from mere Order via an algorithmic
process that makes no use of pre-existing Mind (83). This algorithmic process, in
which traits that are useful for the survival of a species are preserved by passing them
onto offspring (i.e. Natural Selection), is so powerful that it presents the illusion of a
guiding force, an Intelligence, in Nature. Dennett points out, however, that Darwin
and his intellectual descendents showed this Intelligence could be broken into bits
so tiny and stupid that they didnt count as intelligence at all, and then distributed
through space and time in a gigantic, connected network of algorithmic process. The
work [of designing new forms of order] must get done, but which work gets done is
largely a matter of chance (133).

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a thing so small

Darwins dangerous idea has garnered less than universal support. Even within the
world of science, the adaptationist program continues to be put into question, most
famously by Stephen Jay Gould, but also by Noam Chomsky, who along with other
linguists, has engaged Steven Pinker and others in a debate over the evolutionary status
of language. Frost himself had reservations over Darwin, but he realized that after
Origin of Species the Argument from Design was as dead as the dodo. Design, as the
product of that realization, puts not one, not two, but three nails in its coffin.

III. Demolishing the Argument from Design,Version 1


Lets start at the beginning, by briefly recapitulating the drama of Design.
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.

An observer, perhaps during his morning constitutional, discovers a white spider (a fairly
common color for the type of spider, most likely a crab spider [Thomisidae], which is
able, in some cases, to change color and which lays in wait on flowers to eat, among
other things, moths) eating a white moth (a common enough color for moths) on a
white heal-all (an unusual color for a heal-all). Heal-alls are naturally blue or purple, so
this one is a mutation [Figure 1]. Our observer finds this highly improbable scene, this
image seemingly sprung from the palette of Jasper Johns, and ultimately asks, What
but design of darkness to appall could have designed such a thing (13). This is the
poems first attack on the Argument from Design: if the Argument takes itself and the
world seriously, then it can only lead to the conclusion that God is evil and Christian
theology is a sham. An evil design could only indicate an evil designer.

IV. Demolishing the Argument from Design,Version 2


Frost did not stop there. He did not stop the poem or his attack on the Argument
from Design in the reductio ad malum of line 13. The poems final line demolishes not
only the Argument from Design but also its own first attack. If design govern in a thing

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314

Fig. 1. Reprinted courtesy of


Carl Farmer.

so small suggests that the whole drama weve just witnessed might be as misguided as
the original Argument from Design, because there is no design in a thing so small as
this scene (14). The first attack suggests that natural theology followed to its end could
only conclude with an evil deity; the second attack suggests that a theological mindset
that purports to discover a creator behind creation is wrongheaded no matter how it
imagines that creator. The design perceived there is a construct of the observing mind,
not of some malevolent designer. Design does not exist out there; it is only in human
minds and the forms they project on nature. The final line suggests that the outside-in
movement of the poem, from observing D2orderto inferring D1intentionis in
truth always the reverse. Our designing minds impose design on the essential chaos of
the world. What is especially important to see here is that this charge followed through
indicts science as much as it does theology. Pure science claims to discover order in
the world; art to make it. The skepticism of the final line of Design would seem to
suggest that science is really just a deluded form of art.
Frosts use of the sonnet form in this poem would seem particularly apt in light of
this second critique of the Argument from Design. After all, isnt the sonnet a perfect
example of the artificial order humans lay over the world? If most poets go to the form
to tame the chaos of romantic passion, Frost much more frequently uses the sonnet to
write about nature. Frost published 29 sonnets in his lifetime; all but twoUnharvested, which veers back and forth between pentameter and tetrameter, and Mow-

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a thing so small

ing, which stands out for being unmetrical employ strict iambic pentameter (see
appendix). Frost was much looser in the rest of his verse, as if in his sonnets he was
submitting himself to the restrictions of the form in order to impose a design on the
worlds disorder. If there is any order in a thing so small as the scene in Design, it
is there because a thing as small as a sonnet governs it all. Nature takes its cues from
art, not art from nature.
This argument should be recognizable. It recalls Eliots description of the mythic
method as a way . . . of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance. Note the verbs.
Joyces method does not discover an order or shape; it orders, it gives shape. The focus
for the high modernists was on breaking the old forms and creating new ones more adequate to modernity. Chief among the worn-out forms was metrical verse. Looking back
at the Teens, Pound gave this overthrow pride of place: To break the pentameter, that
was the first heave.12 He told poets to compose in the sequence of a musical phrase,
not in the sequence of a metronome.13 The influential critic T. E. Hulme declared,
[R]egular meter . . . is cramping, jangling, meaningless, and out of place.14
Frost, however, should not be included in this camp of idealist iconoclasts. He
lived in England from 191215 and knew Pound and Hulme firsthand. He did not fall
under their spell. On the contrary, he began work on the poem that would become
Design and developed a theory of poetic practice that placed a heavy emphasis on
the significance of sound and meter. Tyler Hoffman suggests that Frosts theorizing
while he was in London was a way to help secure a share of the literary marketplace
for himself, but I would add that it was also a genuine response to and repudiation of
high modernist ideas about meter, matter, and meaning.15

V. Frosts (Generative) Metrics


Most readings of Design stop with Frost the skeptical modernist doubting the
reality of design.16 This is a mistake. Frost was no idealist; he believed that order existed
out there, in the natural world, only he found it in an unusual place. Design exists in
nature for Frost, and it exists in phonology.
Rarely taken seriously as a literary theorist, Frost came up with one big idea, developed in 1913 in London, where every poet seemed to have his own philosophy
of literature, and he trumpeted this idea to anyone who would listen for the rest of
his career. This idea was the concept of the sound of sense, a phenomenon he also
described as sentence sounds, since it was only in sentences that the sound of sense
emerged. The sound of sense, Frost wrote, is the abstract vitality of our speech. It is
pure soundpure form.17 The poet, he argued, must be able to perceive this form and
raise it to the level of awareness through his craft. Consider the following comments.
[I]f one is to be a poet he must learn to get cadences by skillfully breaking the sounds of
sense with all their irregularity of accent across the regular beat of the metre. Verse in which
there is nothing but the beat of the metre furnished by the accents of polysyllabic words
we call doggerel. Verse is not that. Neither is it the sound of sense alone. It is a resultant
from these two. There are only two or three metres that are worth anything. (665)

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316 Frosts description of verse matching up meter and speech rhythms, we shall see, bears
great similarity to generative metrics description of metrical forms. Most striking is his
conscious awareness, rather than creative intuition, that what really matters in meter
are the natural stresses of polysyllabic words. Frost also anticipates generative metrics
account of the foundations of meters. Poetic conventions, although the product of
cultural rather than natural evolution, do not, Frost insists, impose order on nature.
They highlight it. Here is Frost again.
Just so many sentence sounds belong to men as just so many vocal runs belong to one
kind of bird. We come into the world with them and create none of them. What we feel
as creation is only selection and grouping.18 (italics mine)
All I care a cent for is to catch sentence tones that havent been brought to book. I dont
say to make them, mind you, but to catch them. No one ever makes them or adds to them.
They are always thereliving in the cave of the mouth. They are real things: they were
before words were. And they are as definitely things as any image of sight. The most creative imagination is only their summoner. But summoning them is not all. They are only
lovely when thrown and drawn and displayed across spaces of the footed line. Everyone
knows that except a free-verster.19 (italics mine)

It is hard to say whether Frosts reference to the cave of the mouth sounds more
like Plato or Chomsky here. I want to suggest that he sounds most like Darwin. Frost
saw himself as more a discoverer like Darwin than a creator like Eliot and Joyce, a
scientist as much as an artist. Poetry summons the sounds of sense rather than creating them. It is to science that we now turn, to generative metrics, in order to see what
it means to drag the accents of language across the meter and to see what happened
when Frost did so in Design.
Generative metrics, first developed by Morris Halle and Samuel J. Keyser and
later modified by Paul Kiparsky and Kristin Hanson, is probably unfamiliar to most
of my readers, despite the fact that it has been around since the mid-Sixties.20 I suggest that the major reasons this linguistic description of meter has not supplanted
the traditional scansion based on description of feet are a lack of familiarity with the
science of linguistics and, more significant, a broader suspicion of all science. While
theories of Universal Grammar and the innate structure of language do remain issues
of debate within linguistics, the mere words universal and innate are enough to
raise the hackles of many English professors and graduate students. The dilemma in
Design is very much the dilemma facing both linguists and literary criticswhat to
make of order in the world and the text? Is it there? And if it is, does it mean anything?
In other words, the status of generative metrics is not unrelated to the current status
of Frost, Design, and metrical verse. A better understanding of generative metrics
will help us read Design; a better reading of Design will help us understand the
significance of generative metrics.
Generative metrics suggests that traditional metrical verse forms might indeed be
much more natural than we have thought them to be. Meter is not, in Wimsatt and

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Beardsleys phrase, an exercise in abstraction, not completely.21 The insights of linguistics, particularly studies of rhythm and phonology, suggest that the iambic pentameter
line, while indubitably the product of cultural history, achieved its near hegemonic
position in English verse from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century because
it was a good fit for the natural structures of English. Hanson claims
[T]he major metrical systems of modern English and the systematic variations in form
within them . . . can all be understood as stylizations of exactly [the] set of objects and operations which constitutes the universal grammar of linguistic rhythm. Specific phenomena
which are commonly identified with metrical structure . . . all in fact have counterparts in
phonological structure itself. Thus, the creation and perception of meter itself as an artistic
form has its basis in the natural world, just as architecture does in petrology.22

In other words, formalism and materialism need not be mere metaphors in literary
criticism; linguistics has discovered a great deal about the form poetrys sonic material
naturally takes.
The linguist Bruce Hayes has done invaluable cross-linguistic work on metrical
stress theory that has revealed the correspondences between the natural elements of
phonology and the putatively cultural elements of poetic meter. For example, Hayes
finds that languages that employ stress contain properties similar to metrical verse,
such as rhythmic distribution (Syllables bearing equal levels of stress tend to occur
spaces at roughly equal distances, falling into alternate patterns.) and stress hierarchies
([M]ost stress languages have multiple degrees of stress.).23 Hayes also suggests that
the grouping we perform in scansion naturally occurs in language use. The work of
turn of the century psychologists on the perception of sound duration and intensity
lead him to propose the Iambic/Trochaic Law:
a. Elements contrasting in intensity naturally form groupings with initial prominence
b. Elements contrasting in duration naturally form groupings with final prominence.
(80)

In other words, in a sequence of alternating loud and soft sounds, the hearer naturally
perceives them in LOUDsoft groupings, a trochaic pattern of initial prominence. When
the alternation is long-short, the grouping becomes iambicshortL-O-N-Gin its
prominence pattern. Finally, linguistics has shown that many languages display a phonological structure that groups syllables into feet. The most amusing, if not the best,
evidence for the existence and significance of phonological feet is John J. McCarthys
account of expletive infixation in English. McCarthy argues that the reason we say
fan-fuckin-tastic rather than fanta-fuckin-stic is that we naturally insert expletives
between phonological foot boundaries.24 These phonological feet are not equivalent to
metrical feet; their existence however suggests that metrical feet might be, as Hanson
suggests, stylizations of naturally occurring material rather than structures sprung from
the mind of man, untouched by nature. Traditional metrical forms might be much
more the product of nature, while free verse might be the extreme end of cultural

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318 expression. In the light of generative metrics and conta Hegel, the poet looks much
more like a painter working with the limitations of pigment or a sculptor with marble
than he does some kind of ethereal being shaping pure spirit.
Generative metrics builds on these and other linguistic insights into the working of
language in order to articulate a description of meter that can capture poets intuitive
knowledge of iambic pentameter and can distinguish lines that conform to that meter
from those that dont. One of the major weaknesses of traditional scansion is that it
cannot really be used to define a meter at all; as Derek Attridge points out, it can scan
any strand of prose as a succession of classical feet without explaining why one line
would be metrical and another, say, this sentence, would not.25 Like the speaker in
Design, the analyst using traditional metrics can say what he sees, but he will not be
able to say why it is that way. An adequate analysis of any lines meter entails examining it against a template and the correspondence rules that govern the mapping of any
line into the template.
The template of iambic pentameter is as follows.
ws ws ws ws ws

This model corresponds to a large degree with traditional descriptions of iambic pentameter. There are ten positions, organized into binary units of feet, and each foot has
a rising pattern, composed of a weak position (w) and a strong one (s). So far we are
not very far from the traditional taTUM taTUM taTUM taTUM taTUM description
of iambic pentameter. The differences appear in the correspondence rules:
1. Each metrical position typically contains one syllable.26 Additional rhythmically weak
syllables can be added to the right edge of feet, a phenomenon traditionally know as
a feminine ending; these extrametrical syllables most commonly come at the end of
the line. Weak positions at the left edge of lines or phrases may be left empty, a phenomenon known as catalexis.
2. No weak position (w) contains the primary stressed syllable of a polysyllabic, lexical
word, unless that syllable falls line- or phrase-initially.27

What should be noted here it that the rules put no restrictions on strong positions (s),
monosyllabic words, or non-lexical words. Poems conventionally identified as written
in iambic pentameter routinely place unstressed syllables in (s) positions and stressed
ones in (w) positions.

VI. Scanning Design


Here, then, is Design laid out against the template of iambic pentameter:

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a thing so small

(1) I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,


w s w s w s w s w s
(2) On a white heal-all, holding up a moth

w s w
s w s w s w s
(3) Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth
w s w
s w s w s w s
(4) Assorted characters of death and blight

w s w s w s w s
w s
(5) Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
w
s w s w s w
s w s
(6) Like the ingredients of a witches broth
w s w s w
s w s w s
(7) A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,

w s
w
s w s w
s w s
(8) And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
w s
w s w s w s w s
(9) What had that flower to do with being white,
w
s w
s w s w
sw
s
(10) The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?

w
s w
s w s w s w s
(11) What brought the kindred spider to that height,
w
s
w s w s w s w
s
(12) Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
w
s
w s
w
s
ws w s
(13) What but design of darkness to appall?
w
s w s w s w
s w s
(14) If design govern in a thing so small.

w s w s w sw s w s

With only one exception, line 14, Design maps cleanly into the template. Each position
contains one syllable, and strongly-stressed syllables of polysyllabic words are in the
(s) position. Lines 6, 7, and 9 could be read as having eleven syllables, and in neither
case could the final, stressed syllables be counted as extrametrical. These lines contain
elisions. The final two syllables of ingredients are elided as one syllable, a perfectly
conventional pronunciation, while the two syllables of flower are elided, so it sounds
like flour, again a pronunciation licensed by ordinary speech. Heal-all in line 10
would appear to violate the second correspondence rule by placing heal in a weak
position, especially since compound words tend to have initial stress (e.g. doghouse,
girlfriend), but as Halle and Keyser have pointed out, Frost often treats compound and
hyphenated words in particular as two monosyllabic words (presuming the compound
is composed of two monosyllables), and Kiparsky has provided a phonological basis
for this practice.28 Heal can be treated as a monosyllabic word and thus presents no
problem for rule two. The only real complication in the poem, the placement of the
word design in line fourteen so that the second, stressed syllable falls in a (w) position (contrast it with the placement of the same word in line thirteen), is not so easily
dismissed. It is essential to an interpretation of how the meter of Design contributes
to the poems meaning.

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320

The metrical regularity of the opening lines of the poem is entirely appropriate; if
we can make an equation between nature and the natural properties of English, as I
think we can in Design, then Frost has it that our initial encounter with the poem is
much like the speakers discovery of the natural scene. We find the language in perfect
harmony with meters design. When Design begins to complicate the template of
iambic pentameter with the eleven syllables of line 6, it slightly disturbs this vision and
sound of order, but only to reinstate them more forcefully as the elision of ingredients
brings the line back in line. This elision echoes the blending in the witches broth, in
which discrete components come together in a unity, much as the spider, flower, and
moth have in the poem. The elisions in lines 7 and 9 place flower in a weak position
and a strong position, respectively; a similar phenomenon occurs with heal-all. It is
as if Frost is showing off his ability to arrange language within the constraints of iambic
pentameter.29 In 2, heal-all spans two feet, in 10, only one. The same thing happens
with design in 13 and 14. While Frost might doubt that something steered the spider,
moth, and flower together, he leaves us no doubt as to his ability to steer these assorted
characters into varied but ordered arrangements. It is this ability to sort words that
Frost once described as essential to poets. Our technique becomes as much material
as material itself. . . . In poetry and under emotion every word used is moved a little
or muchmoved from its old place, heightened, made, made new.30

VI. Demolishing the Argument from Design,Version 3


Nowhere in Design is Frosts movement of words more significant than in the
final line. Instead of displaying his ability to work within the constraints of iambic
pentameter, Frost breaks the meter, breaks the poems design, and he does so with the
word design. This is the only line in the poem that cannot be accommodated to the
template. Indeed, it is the only line in any of Frosts pentameter sonnets that cannot
be (see appendix). The first and second syllables of design fall into the strong and
weak position, respectively, which violates the correspondence rule that states that the
most strongly stressed syllable of a polysyllabic lexical word will never fall into a weak
position, save for those exceptions in line- and phrase-initial positions.
If design govern in a thing so small.
w s w* s w s w s
w s

Once again, form echoes content, as this disruption of order happens in a line that
seems to be questioning whether design does indeed govern in a thing so small as a
spiders meal, a sonnet, or even a single line or word of a poem. Design, it would appear, is not governing the word design itself. The word slips out of the constraints
of iambic pentameter.
I hope it is clear that Frost is making a bit of a joke here, but its not one thats been
heard often. The only critic I know of who has picked up on the meter of the last line
is Reuben Brower, but he sees it as a further reason to doubt the reality of any design

Murphy /

a thing so small

at all. This interpretation, I suggest, highlights the limits of foot-based analysis of meter. When it hasnt made readers deaf to the metrical-semantic effect of Frosts final
line, traditional scansion has, as in Browers case, led them to misread the line. For it
is precisely in this jokethat design itself is not subject to the poems designthat
the modernist/idealists argument against design breaks down, and breaks down as a
result of the breakdown of the metrical template of the poem. While the idealist might
claim that this collapse of design only proves his point that minds impose design on
the world, such a claim misses the much more important point that this collapse is
precipitated by the mismatch of the meter and the natural stress of the word design.
Design is naturally accorded sonic prominence in the poem because it is a lexical
word and because its second syllable contains a long vowel sound, but Frost puts that
prominence into tension with the meter. Frosts breaking the meter can only happen
(for both writer and reader) as a result of taking into account aspects of languagethe
placement of stress on certain categories of words and of vowelsthat cannot be willed
by individuals or cultures. Individuals can choose to place extra emphasis on certain
words in their readings of the poem, of course, but this action exploits natural stress
patterns; it doesnt prove their falsehood. What would emphasis mean if there were
not some established pattern for it to be played against? Frosts joke in line 14 is in
part that a break from order is the best proof of orders presence.
Biology and linguistics strike back at both culture and religion here, as nature is
revealed to be designed but not by any designer, not unless God prefers long vowels
and verbs. But Frost isnt done yet. I suggest that Frosts interest in a thing so small as
the stress pattern of a word and his exercise in building up and demolishing arguments
in order to create new ones are analogues to the phenomenon evolutionary biologists
call scaling. Scaling refers to the repetition of the phenomenon of Natural Selection
at each level of scale in the process of evolution, from strands of DNA up to species
and perhaps beyond, if you believe Richard Dawkins argument about memes, all the
way up to culture. What happens with the word design in line 14 recapitulates what
happens in evolution: the appearance of disorder is recuperated into a new system of
order, one with greater complexity. The apparent breakdown of design ends up revealing the insistence of design.
We can find this recuperation of order in two places. Hanson has discovered, in
Donnes verse and Shakespeares dramas, lines that extend the second correspondence
rule, lines that allow stressed syllables to appear in weak positions as long as they are
subordinated to a following stronger stress.32 The placement of design next to the
stronger stress of the first syllable govern would be allowed, and it has an interesting
semantic effect. Design is subordinated, appropriately, to govern. The more strongly
stressed word does what it means, a perfect illustration of Frosts definition of poetry:
words that have become deeds.33 This, then, is one answer to Frosts query: yes, design does govern in a thing this small because the break with design is only an illusion.
Culturein the form of a sonnetand naturein the sounds of wordsmatch up
quite nicely, perhaps because culture, even in a thing as small as an iambic pentameter
line, is much more the product of nature that weve thought it to be.

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M O D E R N I S M / modernity

322

We can also place this recuperation at the level of meaning. The disturbance of
order at the metrical level contributes to a greater degree of semantic complexity, as
we recognize that Frost has played a little joke here. It is he who has placed design
out of whack with the template, but he did so intentionally. What looks like a loss of
control over the poems design (D2plan) is in fact the moment in which Frosts design
(D1intention) is most insistent. What is particularly striking about this moment in
the poem is that the sense of the poems meaning is enriched by the perception of a
disturbance of order, in stark contrast to the scenario depicted in the poem, where the
speaker asks what the scene means because it is so well arranged. Earlier I suggested
that one of the main questions asked by Frost in this poem and by many people today
is whether order (D2) implies intention (D1); in Design the collapse of D2 leads
to the inference of D1. We can begin to see in this reversal the difference between
nature and literature. With the natural object, the question is could this concurrence
be meaningful? With a text, the question is could it not?

VIII.The Order and Meaning of Meter


In this final line of the poem, even as the poems structure mimics the operation of
evolution (order rising out of disorder) and employs a meter that Frost understands
more to be given by nature than crafted by humans, Frost makes a sharp distinction
between culture and nature, between text and tree. In this poem (in any poem) we do
have a designer, and it was he, not nature, that placed design next to govern. We
even have a record of his designing intelligence at work in the manuscript evidence of
his revision of In White, a revision that is of course much more interesting in terms
of meter. And as a result, the poem, unlike the spiders repast, definitely has a meaning.
In literature, order does mean meaning; in nature, it does not, since meaning implies
intention, and nature intends nothing.
If nature, and I include meter within its embrace, has any design (D1) it is to achieve
design (D2); this is true at least in the biological realm, where entropy must be kept
at bay. Richard Dawkins has argued that natural selection exerts a braking effect on
evolution. The baseline rate of evolution, in the absence of natural selection, is the
maximum possible rate.34 That is synonymous with the mutation rate. Literary forms do
much the same thing; they place a brake on change and in doing so guide it into more
interesting formulations. I can think of no better expression of this paradoxical relationship between constraints and creativity than the mathematician Stanislaw Ulams:
When I was a boy I felt the role of rhyme in poetry was to compel one to find the unobvious
because of the necessity of finding a word which rhymes. This forces novel associations
and almost guarantees deviations from routine chains or trains of thought. It becomes
paradoxically a sort of automatic mechanism of originality.35

What Frost realized when he compared free verse to tennis without a net was that
freedom without constraint easily devolves into chaos. Literary forms are not restrictions

Murphy /

a thing so small

imposed on language, but structures designed as ways to explore the design space of a
language and to find places undiscovered by earlier writers. In 1950, the geneticist H.
Kalmus described a gene in much the same way that we might describe a literary text:
A gene . . . is a message, which can survive the death of the individual and can thus
be received repeatedly by several organisms of different generations.36
I do not use these genetic/textual metaphors lightly; I would suggest that Design
anticipates in both subject matter and tone this coming together of the biological and
the linguistic that Watson and Cricks discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 enabled.
It was during the Twenties, the decade in which Design was published, that scientists
discovered DNAs composition, but it was Watson and Crick who revealed that the
vast diversity of life could be reduced to chains of just 4 molecules that were figured
as lettersA (adenine), G (guanine), C (cytosine), and T (thymine)and that much
of that diversity came down to, almost literally, spelling, the way the molecules/letters
were arranged. There are two shocking revelations here. First, great complexity arises
from extreme simplicity. Two, nature possesses an order that looks a great deal like
languages. These, I suggest, are exactly the revelations Frost delineates in Design,
and his poem responds to them in much the same way that people did and continue to
do so to Watson and Cricks revelation of the material mechanisms of evolution: awe,
horror, doubt. Just as the perversion of nature in Designthe naturally blue heal-all
that has mutated into a white floweris necessary to establish a new form of order
in the natural scene, so too does the perversion of the meter in the poems final line
introduce a whole new level of design. The meter of Design is not a repudiation
of nature so much as a testimony to it. The poem anticipates the modern synthesis of
evolution, while Frosts theory of meter anticipates modern linguistics. A few decades
later Chomsky and other linguists would confirm Frosts intuition that language was
an aspect of nature.
One of the main problems both religious people and humanists have with evolution
and modern linguistics is its reduction of what seems magical in the worlds beauty,
multiplicity, diversity, and design to the repetition of materials that lack those qualities,
that seem utterly mundane rather than magical. The difficulty generative metrics has
had in gaining a foothold in literature departments can also, in part, be chalked up to
this same resistance. Surely meter cannot be as simple as this; at least those classical
names had an arcane, thaumaturgic charm to them. A commitment to traditional scansion might have something in common with a resistance to or lack of interest in prosody;
they all are suspicious of scientific reductionism. What they miss is that reductionism
does not limit art so much as it reveals the myriad ways it can take shape. Metrics is
descriptive, not prescriptive.
This is not to say that literary interpretation is science or can be reduced to prosody.
More than two decades ago, Paul de Man pointed out that literary formalisms error
was to confuse intentional objects with natural ones. Certain entities exist, namely
natural objects, the full meaning of which can be said to be equal to the totality of
their sensory appearances. . . . But even the most purely intuitive consciousness could
never conceive of the significance of an object such as . . . a chair, without including

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M O D E R N I S M / modernity

324 in the description an allusion to the use to which it is put.37 In other words, intention
always matters if we are interested in an artifacts meaning. An interest in meaning is
an interest in intention. The only correction I would make to de Mans formula is that
natural objects cant be said to have any meaning, because they possess no intentional
quality.38 What they may possess is order (D2), extremely sophisticated order, as in
the scenario described in Design, as in the natural stress properties of languages,
as in iambic pentameter, but that order remains meaningless without intention (D1).
Its worth keeping in mind that DNA is not interpreted; poems are. Confusing D1
with D2 is a temptation that materialism will continue to offer as it grows more and
more powerful in its powers of description (witness Intelligent Design), but it is a
temptation that needs to be resisted in order to see not only, for instance, what meter
is but what it means. Ten years after publishing Design, Frost argued that it was
the coming together, not the confusion, of mind and matter that made poetry always
something more than materialism and a poem always something more than nature.
It is the height of poetry, the height of all thinking, the height of all poetic thinking,
[the] attempt to say matter in terms of spirit and spirit in terms of matter. . . . The only
materialist . . . is the man who gets lost in his material without a gathering metaphor
to throw it into shape and order.39 In Design the metaphorof designs power over
disorderlives in the meter.

Appendix: Iambic Pentameter in Frosts Sonnets


Frost published 29 sonnets during his lifetime. I have excluded two of them, Mowing and Unharvested, since they conform only in line number to sonnet form. The
chart below provides the title of each of the remaining 27 sonnets, its page number
in Frost: Collected Poems, Prose and Plays; the number of regular iambic pentameter
lines, the line of line-initial inversions, the number of elisions, the number of extrametrical syllables, and the number of lines that cannot be accounted for by these or
the other two commonly allowed exceptions to the templatephrase-initial inversion
and catalexis, neither of which appear in any of Frosts sonnets. What is striking in
this chart is how many of Frosts lines map perfectly into regular iambic pentameter
(84% of lines). More striking yet is the fact that line 14 of Design is the only line
Ive found in all of Frosts sonnets that cannot be accounted for by the template and
its correspondence rules.

234

240

242

273

275

275

302

Acquainted with the Night

A Soldier

The Investment

The Master Speed

Design

On a Bird Singing in its Sleep

The Silken Tent

308

323

Song Be the Same

Time Out

Never Again Would Birds

233

1
440

1
3

14

12

14

12

10

11

13

14

11

229

The Flood

Once by the Pacific

10

10

12

14

122

Range-Finding

12

11

13

228

120

Putting in the Seed

Extrametrical

Acceptance

116

The Oven Bird

Elision

Line-initial inversion
inversion

14

12

Regular iambic
pentameter

On a Tree Fallen across the Road 220

26

115

Meeting and Passing

25

A Dream Pang

The Vantage Point

15

Into My Own

Title
Page

Unaccounted for by
correspondence rules

Murphy /

a thing so small
325

358

359

359

361

361

362

363

n/a

Etherealizing

Why Wait for Science

Any Size We Please

The Planners

No Holy Wars for Them

Bursting Rapture

The Broken Drought

TOTAL

Title
Page

Line-initial inversion
inversion

Elision

Extrametrical

1
4

317

14

22

24

14

14

10

12

14

14

Regular iambic
pentameter

Unaccounted for by
correspondence rules

M O D E R N I S M / modernity

326

Murphy /

a thing so small

Notes
1. I want to express my gratitude to Kristin Hanson, the organizers, participants, and respondents
at the Robert Frost Society panel at the 2004 MLA Conference, Morris Halle, and Robert Faggen
for their comments on earlier versions of this essay.
2. Richard Poirier, Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing (New York: Oxford University Press,
1977) 243255. This essays takes issue with Poiriers claim that Frost seldom misses a chance to
bring Darwinism into a question (265).
3. T. S. Eliot, Ulysses, Order, and Myth, Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (New
York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1975) 177.
4. Timothy Steele, Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter (Fayetteville:
University of Arkansas Press, 1990).
5. Robert Faggen, Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan
Press, 1997).
6. There is no better evidence of the persistence of Darwins challenge to traditional ideas about
design than in the lamentable rise of the Intelligent Design movement, basically an updated version
of the Argument from Design, employing bad science and worse analogies.
7. Design, n. Oxford English Dictionary, 2ND ed. (1989), online edition, <www. dictionary.oed.
com> 6 July 2005.
8. This second possibility, of a purposeless purposiveness, is the key to Kants account of aesthetics
in the Critique of Judgment.
9. Daniel C. Dennett, Darwins Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (New York:
Simon and Schuster, 1995) 64.
10. Pinker and co-author Paul Bloom revived interest in language and evolution in the article
Natural language and natural selection, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13.4 (1990) 707727. Dozens of articles have been written in response. Chomskys most considered response was written with
Marc D. Hauser and W. Tecumseh Fitch in The Faculty of Language: What Is It, Who Has It, and
How Did It Evolve? Science 298 (22 November 2002) 15691579. Essays from both sides take up
the debate anew in Cognition 97.2 (September 2005).
11. It is at the very least a happy accident that Frost uses a spider to debunk the Argument from
Design. In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Humes mouthpiece Philo refers to a Brahmin myth that spiders created the universe, in order to expose the silliness of the design argument.
David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and the Posthumous Essays (Indianapolis:
Hackett, 1980) 48
12. Ezra Pound, Canto 81 [1945], The Cantos of Ezra Pound (New York: New Directions,
1998) 538.
13. Ezra Pound, A Retrospect [1913/1918], Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T. S. Eliot (New
York: New Directions, 1968) 3.
14. T. E. Hulme, A Lecture on Modern Poetry [c. 1911], Further Speculations, ed. Sam Hynes
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1955) 74.
15. Tyler Hoffman, Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry (Hanover: Middlebury College, 2001) 13.
16. See, for example, Randall Jarrells To the Laodiceans (1953) in Robert Frost: A Collection
of Critical Essays, ed. James M. Cox (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1962), 83104; Reuben A.
Brower, The Poetry of Robert Frost: Constellations of Intention (New York: Oxford University Press,
1963); Richard Poiriers Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing, and George F. Bagby, Frost and the
Book of Nature (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993). In Robert Frost and the Challenge
of Darwin, Robert Faggen usefully distinguishes between the perception of order and of meaning in
Design: [Important] for Frosts poem is the question Darwin raised of whether a human observer
. . . is in any position to ascribe meaning to what he sees and attempts to make sense of through
analogy (86).
17. Robert Frost, Letter To John Bartlett (4 July 1913), Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays (New
York: Library of America, 1995) 665.
18. Robert Frost, To Sidney Cox (December 1914), Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays, 681.
19. Robert Frost, To Walter Pritchard Eaton (18 September 1914), Collected Poems, Prose,
and Plays, 690.

327

M O D E R N I S M / modernity

328

20. Morris Halle and Samuel Keysers Chaucer and the Study of Prosody, College English 28
(December 1966): 187219, inaugurated generative metrics. Halle and Keyser revised their ideas
several times over the years. See The iambic pentameter [1972], Essays in Modern Stylistics, ed.
Donald C. Freedman (London and New York: Methuen, 1981) 20624. Paul Kiparsky, in Stress, syntax
and meter, Language 51 (1975) 576616, and The rhythmic structure of English verse, Linguistic
Inquiry 8 (1977) 189247, made several valuable emendations to Halle and Keysers description. My
own discussion of iambic pentameter draws on all these texts, which should be consulted for their
much more thorough discussion of the linguistic theory and technical aspects of their descriptions of
English rhythmic structures.
21. W. K. Wimsatt, Jr., and Monroe C. Beardsley, The Concept of Meter: An Exercise in Abstraction, PMLA 74.5 (1959): 58598.
22. Kristin Hanson, An Art that Nature Makes: A Linguistic Perspective in Meter in English,
unpublished manuscript, 67.
23. Bruce Hayes, Metrical Stress Theory: Principles and Case Studies (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1995) 25.
24. John J. McCarthy, Prosodic Structure and Expletive Infixation, Language 58.3 (1982):
574590.
25. Derek Attridge, The Rhythms of English Poetry (London: Longman, 1982) 38.
26. I refer the reader to Kiparsky 1975 and 1977 for a further discussion of the limitations on positions. For our discussion of Design, we need only work with the syllable restriction, although this is
not the case for much of Frosts poetry, which pushes the correspondence rules to their limit.
27. Lexical words, also known as content words, are nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Nonlexical, or function, words include pronouns, auxiliary verbs, articles, conjunctions, prepositions, and
exclamations.
28. Morris Halle and Samuel Jay Keyser, On Meter in General and on Robert Frosts Loose
Iambics in Particular, Linguistics: In Search of the Human Mind (Tokyo: Kaitakusha, 1999) 14950.
On compound words see Kiparsky, The Rhythmic Structure of English Verse, 21214.
29. There may be even more diversity on display than my scansion reveals. Line seven could
be scanned as containing an extrametrical syllable at the end of spider, rather than the elision of
flower.
30. Letter To Sidney Cox, 682.
31. Reuben A. Brower, The Poetry of Robert Frost: Constellations of Intention (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1963).
32. For a more extensive and theoretical discussion of this subordination in Donnes poetry see
Kristin Hansons Nonlexical words in the English iambic pentameter: a study of John Donne, The
Nature of the Word: Essays in Honor of Paul Kiparsky, eds. Kristin Hanson and Sharon Inkelas
(Cambridge: MIT Press, forthcoming).
33. Some Definitions 701.
34. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: Norton, 1987) 125.
35. Quoted in Dennett, 223.
36. From A Cybernetic Aspect of Genetics, Journal of Heredity 41.1 (1950) 1922; quoted in
Evelyn Fox Keller, Refiguring Life: Metaphors of Twentieth-Century Biology (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1995) 79.
37. Paul de Man, Form and Intent in the American New Criticism, Blindness and Insight:
Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
1983) 234. It should be acknowledged that de Man went on to alter his thinking on materialism
and meaning a great deal.
38. Natural objects can, however, have significance. A cluster of mutating cells in your throat
may be significant, although what that significance might be may be in question, but it cannot possess meaning.
39. Education be Poetry (1932), Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays 7234.
40. Line 5 contains an elision and an extrametrical syllable.