Textual Criticism and Frost’s Poetry

In order to relate textual criticism to Frost’s poetry, I focused on the famous poem of “Design.” Frost worked on “Design” for more than ten years before publishing a copy. His first recorded manuscript dates back to 1912, when he sent a copy of “In White” to his friend, which appeared as follows:

A dented spider like a snow drop white
On a white Heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of lifeless satin cloth–
Saw ever curious eye so strange a sight?–
Portent in little, assorted death and blight
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth?—
The beady spider, the flower like a froth,
And the moth carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The blue prunella every child’s delight.
What brought the kindred spider to that height?
(Make we no thesis of the miller’s plight.)
What but design of darkness and of night?
Design, design! Do I use the word aright?

Some people have speculated that Frost sent this letter because he wanted to put down a legitimate copy of the poem. Regardless, Frost made the deliberate choice not to publish this version. The final version—the version most commonly accepted today— appears for the first time in 1922. This is the version I recognize from our class book The Poetry of Robert Frost, which was edited by Edward Connery Lathem in 1969:


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.


The editor of our book didn’t change the poem from its format in A Further Range, which was published in 1936, and after searching the web extensively, I couldn’t find another version of “Design” other than these two.

               Unlike the work in textual criticism that we did with Emily Dickinson’s poems, if I were to attempt to analyze “Design,” I would not be dealing with the same flood of variations. Nevertheless, even in considering the simplified timeline of Frost’s two versions, I was confronted almost immediately with the essential question of textual criticism: which version of “Design” should serve as the copy-text? The majority of editors use the 1936 variation as the “true” form of the poem, the one that Frost intended. However, I wonder if there is a different way of thinking about Frost’s progression of ideas. What if “In White” served as the basic text, and “Design” was analyzed through the lens of “In White”? For example, Frost introduces in both poems the idea of a darker, evil-prone force, and he questions the reason behind such small details as the coincidence that “brought the kindred spider to that height” (a phrase used in both poems). The final disclaimer in the later poem— “If design govern in a thing so small”—seems even more significant when it is laid against the backdrop of “In White.” The early version does not rebuke the idea of a higher power meddling in trivial affairs as firmly as the later does. Instead, “In White” ends with a question—“Do I use the word aright?”—expressing only a sense hesitance and confusion. A devil’s advocate to analyzing various forms of poems in this manner would probably argue that Frost chose to publish one version and not the other; critics would argue that more emphasis should be placed on the published version. I can accept this point of view, but I do think considering the context of past versions is important to a complete understanding of a work.

               While researching online, I found that when critics did compare the two versions of “Design”, the manner of their critique was alarming. The critics did not even pretend to assume a neutral standpoint, arguing that certain lines within “In White” were “weaker” than others in “Design”, or that certain images in the later version were simply “better” than those in the earlier version. I find this type of attitude incredibly disrespectful to the author. If the aim of textual criticism, as opposed to new criticism, is (most would argue) to emphasize authorial intent, then I think that taking any aspect of a poem—be it an image, word, or punctuation mark—as anything less than the intent of the author is a slippery slope. And though I suggested a reading of “Design” through the lens of “In White”, I think it is important to consider “In White” as an entity of its own. Yes, Frost decided not to publish this version, and yes, he revised it later on, but “In White” is still a poem, a solo work of art that should not be degraded by speculation on how it was improved or how it could have improved.

               Bottom line: yikes, an editor has a really tough job.

Links used: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/frost/design.htm

11 thoughts on “Textual Criticism and Frost’s Poetry

  1. Throughout our study these last 5 weeks of class, I have noticed that critical theory follows rules of logic. Fallacious and subjective arguments are not welcome, and, indeed, are not useful in performing literary criticism. Nevertheless, critics do make assumptions to broaden understanding. Determining the copytext generally results from, in most cases, determining authorial intent. It does not follow, however, that the copytext – even if published by the author in that author’s lifetime – is the best version of the text. One too many liberties with assumption, in my opinion. Thus I find it most intriguing that critics would compare “In White” and “Design” from such a perspective.

  2. Ben, I’m interested in this exchange–and I don’t quite follow what you’re saying here, so I wonder if you have time for a few questions. Do you mean that *authorial intent* doesn’t produce the best copytext? Interesting. And what do you mean by “such a perspective” in the final sentence? The perspective of “authorial intent”? If you have time to respond, that would help us all to clarify how you’re responding to Kendra. If not, maybe others will pick up these ideas in other comments. Thanks, Ben and Kendra, in either case?

  3. Prof. Phillips, I’d be happy to clarify my response! To answer your last question first, “such a perspective” refers to the belief that the version that the author intended to publish of a given text is the best version of that text. To answer your first question, I was indeed insinuating that using authorial intent to determine the copytext will not always produce the best copytext. Kendra’s desire to treat “In White” and “Design” as two separate but related entities is the more sound form of criticism.

  4. Kendra,
    This was a really solid and interesting analysis. You’ve pretty much hit on every point I would have wanted to make if I was given the same blog post topic. But just for further thought, I’m going to try to relate your post to Jerome McGann’s “The Socialization of Texts” by postulating that you’re almost 100% in favor of the Parker ideal instead of the Bowers/Tanselle ideal. It seems that you give more authority to the idea of authorial intention, or getting back to what the author created. I would just be curious, therefore, to hear your judgment of the Bowers/Tanselle eclectic approach. Do you see any validity at all to combining different aspects from the two versions to create a distinctly “public” text, with its own historical and material context separate from Frost’s chronology and intentions?

  5. When we dug into the topic of textual criticism in class, the only part that really threw me for a loop was when people started talking about the ‘analytical merit’ of certain editions. The idea that one story’s edition is better than another and more deserving of analysis is a bit beyond my comprehending power. I’m glad that, in your post, you didn’t shy away from challenge of looking into two poems at once. It’s, in my opinion, the best way to understand the evolution of a poem over time and to see areas that the poet focused his attention of.

  6. I think you did an thorough overview on Textual Criticism. Before this discussion in class I have never really thought about the implications of choosing a specific text. Now I know the difficulties of textual criticism. I fully agree with your statement, “an editor has a tough job!” I also wonder how the dynamics of that position have changed with a technological shift. With word processing, I wonder how this affects the ambiguity of choosing a text for modern writers .

  7. I too find it very interesting, how the first text was a quarto and the second text was a folio. This seemed to cause me to question myself and ask what other texts are written similar to this one. However, I think it would be more interesting if we take the two different texts of Othello and see how the changes of the lines have affected our reading and perspections of the characters in the play and how they contribute to the text as a whole.

    • I’m so sorry I don’t understand what happened but I’m trying to remove the post above and place it in the right section I was refering to. Once again i am so sorry!

  8. You are correct for seeing these as two different poems. While one was published and the other was not it does not mean that one is better then the other.The point of revision is so one can perfect the piece of work until the intent of the author is correct. The first poem although a previous version of the published piece is a poem in itself. This is because the intent is different than the published piece. However the first poem needed to be revised, that way the author’s intention of his work was made clear to his critiques.

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