“Yet Do I Marvel” by Countee Cullen

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I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,

And did He stoop to quibble could tell why

The little buried mole continues blind,   

Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,

Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus

Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare   

If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus

To struggle up a never-ending stair.   

Inscrutable His ways are, and immune   

To catechism by a mind too strewn   

With petty cares to slightly understand   

What awful brain compels His awful hand.   

Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:   

To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

 

 

Countee Cullen’s poem “Yet Do I Marvel” is a sonnet written in 1925, right in the middle of an era that was known then as the “New Negro Movement”. Today we call this movement the Harlem Renaissance. During the Harlem Renaissance, many black writers and musicians and activists came into their own and were able to make their way into the mainstream. It was this movement that many associate with the beginnings of the end of segregation. “Yet Do I Marvel” contains many paradoxical lines which allude to seemingly unfair occurrences in nature and mythology. At first read, we may think that Cullen writes about the unfairness of his situation. Keith D. Leonard is a scholar who certainly disagrees that Cullen is complaining, but rather is pointing out another paradox. Leonard would argue that the poem actually has a positive undertone as opposed to its commonly misinterpreted negative perception: “Cullen’s speaker was really marveling at himself… and his individual self-affirmation is the signal gesture of the ethnic poetics of the Harlem Renaissance” (Leonard).

Cullen’s sonnet, as all sonnets, is comprised of fourteen lines. This sonnet, according to Thomas J. Sienkewicz, contains two quatrains and one sextet. The quatrains seem to flow seamlessly into the closing couplet (the last two lines), yet the poem in itself was written in a manner to reflect the speaker’s sense of confusion in regards to the choices made by God. Cullen uses a literary term called enjambment, which is the use of run-on lines in poetry. Instead of stopping or pausing at the end of a line of poetry, we have to carry on reading until we complete the meaning in a later line. This serves the poem and it’s overall tone very well. Although the speaker opens the poem by making it very clear in the first line that he (as it is implied that the speaker is Cullen himself) does “[not doubt] that God is good, well-meaning, kind”, he still questions why certain things were made to be as they are. For example, in line 3 it is asked why the mole “continues blind”. It is also questioned why man, who was made in God’s image “must some day die” (4). This of course is one of the great paradoxes of modern civilization, and also another literary device used by Cullen again to propel this questioning and ponderous voice. Fred M. Fetrow is a critic who disagrees with the immediately conceivable idea that these things are paradoxical at all:

When closely considered, however, these examples are neither unjust nor paradoxical. The “little buried mole continues blind” because he is equipped for survival. Certainly the mole does not perceive or experience his lot as a punishment. Similarly, man, whose “flesh”… mirrors God, will indeed die: but man as a spiritual reflection of his divine maker need die only physically in order to inherit eternal life of the spirit. According to the theology in which Cullen bases his poem, God made man in his image in a spiritual rather than a physical sense; by doing so, God equipped man for survival beyond the grave. Rather than victims of “brute caprice,” mole and man are the recipients of natural and supernatural justice respectively.

In retrospect, it is true, and many would agree that these paradoxes aren’t really paradoxical, even though they were meant to be.

           The use of these questionings of God leads us back to the argument, that Cullen’s poem is not meant to be a lamentation of his position as a black poet at all. Quite the contrary, it is as if Cullen is stating, in a not so blatant manner, that like the mole and man who are well equipped for survival, the black poet too is very well equipped to fulfill God’s bidding and “sing”. After all, in essence, that is what the Harlem Renaissance stood for. To further support this idea that “Yet Do I Marvel” is a proclamation of self-empowerment and justification of race and ethnicity, we can also look at the allusions made by Cullen to Greek Mythology. In lines five through nine Cullen continues his rhetorical interrogation of God by questioning the punishments that were doled out to Tantalus and to Sisyphus. He asks the following: “make plain the reason tortured Tantalus / Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare / If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus / To struggle up a never-ending stair” (5-9). Tantalus was the son of Zeus and the king of Phrygia. His father punished him because he stole nectar and ambrosia from the Gods, and also murdered his own son and fed the body as table food in his court. His sentence was to spend an eternity of starvations with a bounty of food just beyond his reach. Sisyphus’ crime was attempting to cheat death. As a result, he was doomed to walk eternity “up a never-ending stair”, or as many may more commonly recognize the myth, to perpetually push a boulder up a hill. The speaker questions why such castigations were given, but assuming that like all poets, the words and allusions were chosen carefully, then it can also be assumed that we as readers are expected to know the reasons why Tantalus and Sisyphus were punished in order to extract meaning from the poem. As Fetrow states in regard to Tantalus: “[his torture] seems a symmetric example of the punishment fitting the offense.” In regard to Sisyphus he says: “within the context of the myth, his harsh, ‘never-ending’ task is logical and just.” This is why the questioning is rhetorical. We already know the answers, and they are justifiable.

            Because it is now established that the questions that the speaker puts forward already have set and justifiable answers, we can now make the connection to the final couplet where he asks the title question: “Yet do I marvel at this curious thing: to make a poet black, and bid him sing!” (13-14). This is where most readers will automatically overlook the entire context of the poem and come to the conclusion that the speaker is crying out woefully to God, wondering why he would make him a black poet in a world where the black population’s voice was stifled and oppressed by racism, hate and misunderstanding. However, as we mentioned, this poem is in reality a proclamation of faith. The speaker is saying that God made him a black poet because he is perfectly capable of handling the cards that were dealt to him; he is well “equipped”. If you reflect on Countee Cullen’s life, it would make very little sense that he would write a poem condemning himself to the fate set upon him, because considering the times, Cullen was a very successful man, even by today’s standards. He received his BA from New York University and his MA from Harvard. He was a published author by the ripe age of twenty in 1923, and was a rather famous poet and playwright by age 22 when he published “Yet Do I Marvel” as a part of a collection of works titled “Color” (1925). Cullen is considered one of the most influential writers to have swayed the tides during the Harlem Renaissance. He probably would have done a lot more for the movement had his life not been cut short at age 42 due to uremic poisoning and high blood-pressure, which inevitably lead to renal failure. Evidently though, Countee Cullen was not someone who allowed the circumstances of the world around him hold him back, and this is mirrored in the voice of his speaker.

            In an anthology focusing on poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, editor and contributor Cary D. Wintz is in complete opposition to everything discussed above. Instead of taking Cullen’s words and seeing the positive, he writes that this is in fact a lamentation that is full of “hurt” that “emerges forcefully from a context of living images” (360). Wintz seems to completely overlook the already implied answers to the said paradoxes used in the poem and more or less takes each one at face value, which is something that we are taught to avoid when reading poetry as there is always deeper and carefully calculated meaning to every aspect of poetic language. He says that the poem expresses the “dilemma of the black artist in America” (360). Though this may be true in the sense that the dilemma certainly was real and is implied in the poem, it is not what the main focus was intended to be. Still Wintz argues that: “the images of the buried mole and Tantalus and Sisyphus subtly but unmistakably suggest the underground world in which the black reaches for the forbidden fruits of freedom, only to have them sway from his grasp, world in which he is sentenced to absurd labor with no metaphysical meaning” (360).

            “Yet Do I Marvel” is a poem that has been interpreted and reinterpreted many times over. The two main explications have been discussed here. There are those who believe that Countee Cullen was writing a poem for the world that encompassed the voice of his repressed people, and it said, “we are here and we are not going anywhere.” While there are others that believe the opposite, “Woe is I, a poor black man with a gift, but no one who will listen to me.” It is doubtful that Countee Cullen, a strong political figure in his own right, and a very well educated and successful man would have written this poem with any intention of succumbing to the pressure of society. As a man who also wrote for theater, we have to believe that he wrote with a purpose to make a change. Poetry and theater are forms of art that one very powerful thing in common. They are meant to express an opinion that reflects the ideas of the times in which they were written. Often time they are didactic in their themes, and this poem is just that. It was a lesson from a black man to the masses, that he is just as well equipped and worthy to “sing” and anyone else is.     

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Cullen, Countee. Black Voices of African-American Literature. Ed. Abraham Chapman, New York City, New American Library. Apr. 2001. 381-386.

 

Cullen, Countee. “Yet Do I Marvel.” My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen, Voice of the Harlem Renaissance. Ed. Gerald Early. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

 

Fetrow, Fred M. “Cullen’s ‘Yet Do I Marvel.’ (Countee Cullen’s poem). The Explicator 56.2 (1998): 103+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 11 Apr. 2013

 

 Leonard, Keith D. “’To Make a Poet Black’: Constructing an Ethnic Poetics in Harlem Renaissance Poetry.” Fettered Genius: The African American Bardic Poet from Slavery to Civil Rights. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006. 81-117. Rpt. in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Thomas J. Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Trudeau. Vol. 218. Detroit: Gale, 2009. Literature Recourse Center. Web. 11 Apr. 2013.

 

Wilkinson, Philip.  Myths & Legends: An illustrated guide to their origins and meanings. New York, DK Publishing. 2009. P. 69.

 

Wintz, Cary D. Analysis and Assessment: 1940-1976 Volume 1. Ed. Cary D. Wintz, New York & London, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1996. 360-361.

 

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