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.



Yes, it’s TALENT. I know.

As in talent contest. On holiday in Llandudno over 50 years ago, my grandmother made my sister and me enter one. She herself had won a prize for consuming more marshmallows inside a minute than anybody else.

Our task, in the children’s section, was to sing. We were about to perform Brahms’ Lullaby, to which we knew the words. We queued up for our turn on the stage. I (aged five or six) was the older sister: Louise must have thought I knew what to do. But we forgot the words after the first couple of lines and in an agony of embarrassment our chance of fame dissolved.

And then talent turned up again in church, in that mystifying parable. Two faithful servants doubled their allocation of talents, so you got the general idea. The one who buried his in the ground got short shrift. His shrift was so short that the words stuck forever: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”

No wonder John Milton in ‘On his blindness’ (available as a HappenStance BardCard) talked about his ability to write as “that one talent which is death to hide”.

And now there is Carol Ann Duffy. The word ‘talent’ pops up all over the place in her work, like a shining coin. She even has a whole poem called Talent.

But I was thinking about T S Eliot and his famous essay, which is now, O wondrous internet, available at the click of a mouse. I was thinking about it – I often do – when reflecting on how hard it is for poets to work out where they fit in. People like me tell them they are not original enough. Where and how does the individual talent fit in, and how do you double it?

So I re-read the essay, which seemed to me much harder work than I originally thought it. In fact, what I had preserved was an interest in the central idea, namely that there is a relationship between the individual writer and the writing tradition, and that this relationship may be a vexed one.

Eliot writes in a traditional essayist’s style and that’s another problem for me now, though it wasn’t when I first read him. In my teens, I thought all poets were men. Now, when I read about “the historical sense” that “compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones”, the “man” and the masculine pronoun make me read uncomfortably, like someone in bed with crumbs.

The “historical sense” is, to Thomas Stearns, crucial. It is vital to one’s place in tradition, which cannot “be inherited”. Indeed “if you want it you must obtain it by great labour”. Already his language is semi-biblical. And off he goes:

. . . the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.

Blimey. I’d say it’s impossible to write poetry, well or badly, without the pastness of the past getting through. Sometimes aspiring poets say, without compunction, that they don’t read poetry. They worry about being influenced.

It makes no odds. Poetry is in them. It creeps in from the playground. It’s in Sticks and stones can break my bones / but words will never hurt me. It’s in It’s raining, it’s pouring, the old man’s snoring and A stitch in time saves nine and Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper, as well as She sells sea-shells on the sea shore.

And more modern sources too: A finger of fudge is just enough to give your kids a treat and Her ongoing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life forms and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.

The tradition is in the language, the language is in the tradition, the tradition is the history, we are pickled in it from birth. And it gets, willy nilly, nolens volens, into poetry. It’s jiggery pokery and hocus pocus. It’s the Catholic mass and the Cadbury’s fudge advert.

What the poet does with it is quite another matter. She has to find her place in the whirling world of words and still say something or other. Eliot insisted “that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career.” I guess that’s the same as saying poets should read.

But then we get to an even harder demand: “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” This appeals to me. I absorbed Calvinism with the parable of the talents. But wait – continual extinction? From him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. Damn.

It may be argued (with some justification) that I am deliberately muddling Eliot’s noble thesis. Keats’ “negative capability” and Eliot’s extinction of the personality are not a million miles apart. But Eliot goes on to compare the poet to a shred of platinum. I had forgotten this, and I do see why. As memorable metaphors go, it doesn’t rate highly. But then there’s the celebrated bit: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality”. This dictum seems to apply remarkably well to Eliot’s own work (invariably true of poets’ definitions of poetry). And it sounds rather good.

Except that he ruins his entire effect by adding petulantly: “But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”

So yes, the essay is interesting, but not as interesting as I thought, or as useful. It is difficult –  coming out of a tradition and at the same time finding a way to be oneself. Perhaps it doesn’t do to dwell on it too much. Perhaps the thing to do is just to keep working away. Keep writing. Stuff talent.







Sometimes, obscurity exercises its own spell. It’s the bit you don’t understand that does the trick.

Sometimes, obscurity exercises its own spell. It’s the bit you don’t understand that does the trick.

Maybe that’s only true if you more or less ‘get’ the main part of the poem, on one level at least. I woke thinking about Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci, which I’ve loved for as long as I can remember. I like it because it feels so fragmentary – a glimpse of something, a mood, a half a story, a mystery. And it’s a masterly exercise in exploiting traditional ballad form (with a twist – the way the last line of each stanza falls metrically short is exquisitely melancholy).

It’s enormously romantic, of course. Knights wandering around the edges of lakes looking lost, faery ladies seducing them and then disappearing. But at least it makes sense of that label ‘romantic poetry’. I love the way the whole ballad answers “O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms?”, though the narrator has to repeat the question twice. It’s not easy disclosing ailments.

So what does ail him? Love, of course, that old culprit. The loitering knight met a faery lady in the meads (meadows) and they had a dynamic erotic encounter. The word ‘wild’ recurs four times – first it’s her eyes, then it’s the honey. Then the adjective multiplies:

……And there I shut her wild wild eyes
…………With kisses four.

That’s two kisses for each wild eye, following which she lulls him asleep. All this wildness must be sexual intensity. I don’t see how it can not have something to do with that, and the dream he goes on to have – all the pale kings, princes and warriors – these are all the strong men who, like our melancholy knight, have been destroyed by love (all-consuming passion, in particular).

I love the phrase “palely loitering”. How can you make ‘pale’ be an adverb? Keats can – and all those ‘L’ consonants make the tongue stick to the phrase, loiter round it, no less. I once worked in a college with a set of published rules for its students, one of which was: “No loitering in the corridors.” Loitering is not manly. Loitering means a person can be up to something . . .

In this case, the knight is up to something quite useful. In answering the narrator’s questions “O what can ail thee”, he passes on the “horrid warning”, and the message is quite simple. Should you meet a faery lady in the meads (or, if you live in Fife, the Meadies), don’t even think about it. If she gets her way with you, you’re going to be stuck for ever, a prisoner of inertia. All you’ll want is the faery lady, but hey, she’s off enthralling some other poor bastard.

In a Scottish Higher English examination recently, one of the questions invited people to write an essay about some text (could have been novels, or poetry, I can’t remember) which took as its theme ‘unrequited love’. Interestingly, nobody in my class this year had met the word ‘unrequited’, so it’s obviously become archaic, or relatively so. And when you think about it, can anything else be unrequited except love? Merriam Webster wholly links the word to this emotion and even, bizarrely, rhymes it with “self-excited”.

Anyway, I still haven’t got to the bit I was thinking about when I woke up this morning. It was “fragrant zone”. I never understood “fragrant zone” though I have always adored that bit of the poem simply because it was its own wee mystery. Here it is:

……I made a garland for her head,
…………And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
……She look’d at me as she did love,
…………And made sweet moan.

In my head, the garland and bracelets had to be made out of flowers, something like daisy chains, though perhaps something a bit more exotic. Meadow flowers, anyway. And I figured they were scented flowers, so the garland and bracelets together created a whole zone of fragrance. And ‘zone’ has a nice buzz to it, as though even the bees would be gently attracted to the faery lady’s adornments.

I’ve been reading this poem to groups of people, off and on, for approximately thirty years. Nobody has ever asked about “zone”. You’d think somebody would have said once: what does he mean by “fragrant zone”. But no. I have explained manna and elfin grot and why faery is not spelled fairy. But not a peep about fragrant zone.

I don’t know why I’ve never looked it up. However, I just did. The mystery of half a century has dissipated. “Zone” is an archaic word for girdle or belt. Why did I never think to look it up before? I don’t know. Maybe I just wanted it to stay obscure. But now the mystery’s solved, I still like it. What a strange word for a belt: a zone. But now I know ‘zone’ means something that encircles (even in its more usual uses), I like the word even better. And I like that the garland, the bracelets and the zone are all circles, magic circles. Though he could have made her a ring, couldn’t he? And he didn’t do that . . . .

So here’s another thing poetry does. It uses words magically: you get drawn to them and like them (some of them, anyway) before you know what they mean. And sometimes you eventually look up the ‘meaning’ and find there are no simple meanings, just layers of usage and association. And this is amazing. Far better to fall in love with the mystery of language than faery ladies with wild eyes in meads.

But if you want a jolly version, you can’t do better than the Ray Archer Trio. Recommended antidote to faery ladies, in fact.


No, it’s not, of course. That was just to get your attention. In fact, the number of poets in the world is catapulting into almost unimaginable statistics.

No, it’s not, of course. That was just to get your attention. In fact, the number of poets in the world is catapulting into almost unimaginable statistics.

Just now there are something like  6,897,900,000 people alive, give or take a few hundred thousand. Suppose the incidence of those human beings who write poetry is one in a thousand (I know this isn’t very scientific since some of them can’t write and some of them are babies). That means there might be 6,897,900 people who will be, have been or could grow up to be poets. Nearly seven million.

The estimated population in the heavily populated little country in which I live, the United Kingdom, is currently 61,838,154. That’s nearly 62 thousand potential poets because practically all of them WILL be able to read and write. Obviously some of them are babies and some of them are on the way out. But still . . . it’s a thought. Even if only a quarter of those are in poetry-writing ages and situations, that would be over fifteen thousand poets.

In 1821, the year Keats was polished off by tuberculosis, the UK census estimated the population at 20,983,092. (Thank you, George Simmers.) According to my manifestly unreliable calculation, that could be, say, just under twenty-one thousand poets at various stages of their existences. And considering some of them had TB already and a lot of them couldn’t read, and if they could read, would have had no access to poetry books, it’s probably about ten thousand. But I think that’s still far too high.

According to another possibly unreliable wiki source, as late as 1841, 33% of English men and 44% of women signed marriage certificates with their mark, because they couldn’t write. Apparently the level of literacy was somewhat higher in Wales. . . So I reckon of possible poets, maybe two or three thousand? (I’m sure More or Less could do better.)

Actually, Patrick Yarker could do better and looked this up too. This has been such a lovely day — I have had fun with this ongoing dialogue. Raymond Williams, in the chapter about the ‘Growth of the Reading Public’ in The Long Revolution (1961) suggests (page 187 of the Pelican edition):

Able to sign reg.      Men             Women              Total

1839                   66.3%          50.5%                 58.4%

1873                   81.2%          74.6%                 77.9%

By the end of the century Williams suggests some 95% of both men and women could sign.  His interest is more in the reading element of ‘literacy’ than in the writing, and he has nothing much to say about poets (though notes the popularity of cheap editions of poetry, and of Shakespeare, at the revolutionary end of the preceding century, as part of his argument that technology and capitalist imperatives were crucial in the process of widening the circle of the literate. He also engages with the old argument that quality must decrease if quantity expands, and suggests it is more interesting to consider the changing character of what counts as ‘literature’ at different historical moments.)

In Ron Silliman’s Blog, June 14, 2007 (thank you, Tim Love) Silliman points out that “when the New Americans were just getting started in the late 1940s, America was a nation of 150 million people, with an annual total of 8,000 book titles per year of all types, and something under 200 publishing poets. .. .”

And he goes on: “Today the US has twice as many people, but is now publishing, according to Bowker, over 290,000 book titles per year, of which some 4,000 titles alone are poetry. There must be somewhere between ten and twelve thousand publishing poets in the US today, in contrast with 200 fifty years ago.”

An American friend last week was attending an event with a thousand poets. Quite apart from the scary idea this represents, it is probably something like the same number as those writing poetry at some time in their lives in the UK in the mid nineteenth century. In one building!

No wonder people moan these days about getting their poetry published. No wonder I am bombarded by emails with poetry in them! I can’t quite hold the relative scale in my head, but there are HUGELY more people in this business than ever before. Vastly more. Mind-bogglingly more.

Does quality decrease if quantity expands? I don’t know that it does. The number of high quality writers must also, surely, expand, and it may be that the proportion of the inept to the ept (for want of a better term) remains the same. Hands up if you know any way of researching this without offending 75% of the writers you know.

But whether people are writing well or not, poetry runs in and out of what they do, because it is more than any of us as individuals. It’s something to do with the life of language and those who speak it. The more people who are up and about on a Sunday morning thinking and speaking and articulating words, the more poetry there will be (as well as more drivel, tripe, twaddle, poppycock and balderdash).

And so poetry remains extant, not extinct. Unlike the Tasmanian Tiger, which has definitely snuffed it. However, we are fascinated by what we have lost, aren’t we? Muses are most effective when absent, so it seems to me.

Cliff Forshaw‘s HappenStance pamphlet, Tiger, is at the printers just now and should come back to me at the end of this coming week, together with Chapter 5 of The HappenStance Story. The Tiger sequence originated in a residency in Tasmania when Cliff got fascinated by the way the absent beast persists in symbols and reported sightings. One of the poems in the sequence is called ‘Loop’, and here’s the loop of film that inspired it: the last Tiger in captivity, so far as we know. If you buy this pamphlet (or Jennifer Copley’s Living Daylights), you can select the other one as well for half price. What are you waiting for?

Note: one more week to enter the free Ambit subscription competition, if you are in Scotland. See previous but one blog entry.