Form and Structure: An Overlapping Battle

In one of our recent classes, we discussed how structure is so often mistaken for form.  Robert Frost’s poem, “Design,” exemplifies why this is an easy association to make.  Frost’s poem very cleanly follows the emblem structure by having the description occur within the first stanza and the meditation occur in the second stanza.  In the first stanza, Frost describes the spider “fat and white” sitting on a heal-all which is holding it’s breakfast of a moth that is “like a white piece of rigid satin cloth.”  He describes this as a thing that is balanced “like the ingredients in a witch’s broth.”  This first stanza is also two lines longer than the second.  These extra two lines not only let him use two sets of ABBA rhyming, but also give him more time to establish the images of spider, heal-all, and moth. 

The second stanza the meditation comes into play.  Frost questions what he just described in the first stanza with a succession of three questions.  In these questions he asks why things happened they way they did, why the spider was “at that height” and what “steered the white moth thither in the night?”  He ends his questions with a culminating question, “What but design of darkness to appall?” which he immediately answers with “If design govern in a thing so small.” 

This turn is so effective within this poem because of its clarity.  Frost leaves no confusion as to what he is doing with structure and form by creating a two-stanza poem.  Instead, he leaves it plainly in front of us, which allows the reader to read the content more closely and expect what is coming next.  There are no surprises in the structure of this poem.  Again, the content is what shines.  As a writer, using an expected structure such as this would allow me to create a strong base for what ever content I apply to the poem.  Or, if I want to be daring, I could use this structure to make people expect one thing and then do the opposite of what Frost does and change the second stanza meditation.  While simple, this structure is effective either way.

3 Responses to “Form and Structure: An Overlapping Battle”

  1. I definitely agree with you. Frost’s turn is so effective because of the clarity and the precision in his writing. There is no grey area that could easily emerge if the language, structure, and form were not as tight as Frost makes this poem.

  2. I think you’re touching upon an important point here in examining the connection between form and structure, and how the unity of the two more successfully express content – the notion that the “design” of “Design” (or another poem) is built on both formal and structural elements.

    I think it might be interesting too to examine a poem in which structure and form seem to be opposed; I wonder if this is another way they can be in conversation with one another.

  3. karlakelsey Says:

    To comment on both comments: I wonder the virtues of such a clarity in turn…is it necessarily a “good” and what does it do to interpretation of poems…and then, I would certainly think that form and structure tension is a conversation. For example, a poem written in blank verse, shooting down the page, has that energy–but also must include turns or else it would be perhaps boring. Paradise Lost. Geoffrey G O’Brian’s Guns and Flags Project.

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