Canis Major

      The great Overdog,
      That heavenly beast
      With a star in one eye,
      Gives a leap in the east.

      He dances upright
      All the way to the west
      And never once drops
      On his forefeet to rest.

      I'm a poor underdog,
      But tonight I will bark
      With the great Overdog
      That romps through the dark.

      -- Robert Frost

      Barking with the Big Dogs: A Reading of Frost's "Canis Major"

      It usually turns out that there's a suggestion of something deep and significant in even the simplest of Frost's poems. In "Canis Major," for example, what at first reading seems to be a simple and accurate description of a constellation moving westward across the night sky turns out -- on further readings -- to suggest a great deal more. By careful attention to individual word choices and by embedding into the poem an interesting parallel to Isaiah's "sleeping dogs," Frost leads the reader to ponder man's complicated relationship with the Universe.

      But the surface of the poem is quite simple and accurate. The speaker is sitting up all night watching the constellation Canis Major travel westward across the sky. Canis Major, by the way, is Latin for "the larger dog," so calling the constellation "the great Overdog, / That heavenly beast / With a star in one eye" is not surprising; and, if one looks at a diagram of the constellation, one sees a single bright star in the triangular-shaped "head" of the constellation more or less where an eye ought to be. Once can also see in such diagrams that the constellation is imagined as a dog dancing on its hind legs; and the dog keeps on dancing "all the way to west / And never once drops / On his forefeet to rest." The speaker may usually feel like "a poor underdog," but something about the great dancing dog in the night-time sky has attracted his notice, and so he watches it all night long, or at least for the five or six hours it takes for Canis Major to go all the way from the east to the west. After all, Canis Major is very easy to spot in the night sky since it contains at the point where the dog's breastbone should be the Dog Star, Sirius, the brightest star in the heavens from our point of view.

      The experience Frost describes, however, is actually more complex than one first supposes. Consider that the dog "leaps" into the eastern sky, "dances" all the way to the west, "romps" through the dark, and "never once drops / On his forefeet to rest." Clearly, the dog is in a state of cosmic celebration. Normally, however, the speaker is "a poor underdog," that is, a loser who seldom has anything cosmic or otherwise to celebrate. Tonight, however, the speaker intends "to bark / With the great Overdog / That romps through the dark." In other words, the speaker seems inspired to join the great Overdog in celebration. The suggestions are fairly clear. There may well be something out there in "the dark" worth celebrating. Humans may be insignificant compared to the cosmos, we may be underdogs, but perhaps there are at least some moments worth celebrating. Perhaps somewhere in the dark there is a joyful, active, playful, or even hopeful meaning worth losing sleep over. Sometimes in poems like " Fire and Ice" and "Design" Frost seems to have a grim view about the relation of humankind to the Universe, but in "Canis Major" his tone can console us a bit.

      There is a passage from Isaiah, a passage about "sleeping dogs," that resonates with the wakeful "underdog." Isaiah predicted the inevitable fall of Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah, and he berated the religious leaders of his day for hastening that doom by their lack of spirituality. He compares these spiritually sleeping leaders to shepherds set out to watch the owner's herds and flocks:

      His watchmen are blind: they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; sleeping, lying down, loving to slumber. (Isaiah 56:10)
      Is Frost -- like Isaiah -- suggesting those whose spiritual sense is asleep need to wake up, to become more alert to the moral and spiritual sphere? Is it possible that Frost is suggesting that even for underdogs and other eventual losers there is a basis for some sort of cosmic joyfulness for those who are alert and truly alive? Clearly this is not a poem where the speaker identifies himself as one of Isaiah's "dumb dogs."

      I would not go so far as to say that Frost consciously and specifically alluded to Isaiah; however, it is easy to see that the joyous cavorting of Canis Major has pulled Frost at least temporarily out of what could have been a dark mood, a mood that could return. But not the night in the poem. In the poem Frost is barking with the big dogs.