Saturday, June 13, 2009

An Analysis of Cullen's "Yet Do I Marvel"

Yet Do I Marvel

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!

"Yet Do I Marvel" is one of Countee Cullen's most famous poems. The poem was published in 1925 in Cullen's first collection of poetry, Color. "Yet Do I Marvel" is a sonnet with seven rhymes. They are arranged in two quatrains (abab and cdcd) and one sextet (eeffgg).

The poem is written from the perspective of a Black poet. It is not clear if the narrator is Cullen himself or not. But, the tone of the poem is clear. The poet focuses on his doubts and confusions about the world, about the relationship between God and humans and about his own specific role and place in the world. Cullen starts by stating his belief in God but also ponders the nature of God. He wonders why certain things happen in the world. He knows that God must have a reason for all of the evil in the world, but he thinks it is just too difficult for humans to understand.

Throughout his poem, Cullen uses examples of the imperfections of the world. For instance, the fact that moles are blind and humans die. He makes references to Tantalus and Sisyphus, two figures from Greek mythology that were punished forever by the gods. The poet ponders these things and comes to the conclusion that only God can truly understand and explain why the world has so much evil in it. He also concludes that humans are far too distracted with everyday life and these explanations are far too complex for humans, like him, to ever understand.

It is not until the last two lines of the poem that we find out the poet is Black. The poet finally reveals himself as not only a poet, but a Black poet. I believe that this changes the meaning of the poem. It is now more than just a poet's reflection of the general human experience, but it is a reflection of God's choice to make him both a poet and Black. To him, this is the most difficult, yet most amazing act of God to understand.

Cullen's use of language in this poem is amazing. The poem has a balanced and consistent rhythm. "Tortured Tantalus" and "fickle fruit" are examples of alliteration in the poem. Cullen also makes use of repetition in this poem through the use of the word "why." This repetition reflects the basic question of the poem.

Cullen uses a metaphor when he writes, "When flesh that mirrors Him must some day die." He compares human flesh to a looking glass which reflects God's image. This is also an allusion to the Bible. In Genesis, Adam is made in the image and likeness of God. Cullen looks at this as another puzzle. If humans are made in the divine image of God, why do they die?

Cullen also uses an allusion to Greek mythology through making references to the punishments of Tantalus and Sisyphus. Tantalus is eternally starving while food is just beyond his reach, while Sisyphus was doomed to eternal labor, by either climbing an unending stairway or constantly rolling a large boulder up a hill. After doing some research, the allusions to Greek mythology are hard for me to understand. If you read their stories, Tantalus and Sisyphus were sinners and their punishments seemed to be logical and fair. Cullen seems to ignore the crimes and sins of these two figures and looks at their eternal punishments as inexplicable. He believes that humankind just will never understand these eternal punishments and their suffering.

"Yet Do I Marvel" is characterized by many scholars as a racial poem. The last two lines of the poem introduce the topic of race. The poet compares his black skin to the blindess of the mole and punishments of Tantalus and Sisyphus. Cullen explores the mystery of God's way of inexplicably making humans have different skin colors.

The question for the poet isn't that he is a poet and Black, but that he is a black poet and is expected to "sing." This is a paradox. An African American poet in 1925 might have found it difficult to "sing" of his blackness without ignoring the suffering of his race. One might ask how a black poet, whose race is oppressed beyond his control. may sing?

But, I think that Cullen is getting at how he can both "sing" of humanity and not necessarily his race. Unlike Langston Hughes, Cullen was known for wanting to be recognized simply as a poet and not only as a Black poet. He wrote about race but he didn't want to be defined by his race. He saw himself as a poet made Black by God, not a Black who was made poet. The poet didn't choose to be a poet any more than he chose to be Black. The source of this all is God and the poet is getting a divine call to sing. Cullen offers a different, unique perspective in this poem. It is not just about the African American experience and condition, but it is about the human condition in general. All humans experience the worldy imperfections like suffering and death. I think this gives the poem a unifying tone.

Fetrow, Fred M. "Cullen's 'Yet Do I Marvel.' (Countee Cullen's poem)." The Explicator. 56.2 (Winter 1998): p103. Literature Resource Center. Gale. EAST LANSING PUBLIC LIBRARY. 10 June 2009

Reimherr, Beulah. "Race Consciousness in Countee Cullen's Poetry." Susquehanna University Studies. 7.2 (June 1963): 65-82. Rpt. in Poetry Criticism. Ed. Carol T. Gaffke. Vol. 20. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998. 65-82. Literature Resource Center. Gale. EAST LANSING PUBLIC LIBRARY. 6 June 2009


  1. AWSOME!!!!!! This helped me on my essay.Now maybe I can pass this effing class,gawd.... -__-

  2. This is a beautiful analysis. Thank you for sharing.